There are many things said of music, and one that most people can trill off their tongues is “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.“. It’s that, or they go all Shakespeare and “If music be the food of love, play on…”.
As I have a soft spot for that sentimental numb-nuts called Albert Einstein, my favourite quote is “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”. For me that is how music fits in my life.
Music is now so readily accessible and everyday that we fail to even notice when it’s there in our ears. I’m old enough and decrepit enough to remember when music was made “live”, or you bought these disks made of “vinyl” and “The Mamas & The Papas” were top of “The Hit Parade”. People did not use acronyms as nouns, and CD, DVD, and MP3 just didn’t exist. I remember my first set of (Shock Horror) “Stereo Headphones”, which sat outside of my cranium and not inside my ears. They weighed approximately 3 pounds.
One thing that has been known for centuries, if not millennia, is that music and sound affects the human mood. From drums beaten to stir the blood pre battle, to Henry The Eighth (of the naughty Tudors) strumming his Lute and crooning out Green Sleeves. Today we have Blue-tooth enabled handsets linked to Spotify setting the mood with someone else’s playlist for foreplay. When you look at the history of music, so much of the greatest music has been linked with religion. It seems that Hatching, Matching and Dispatching (Birth, Marriage & Death) needs music for extra value, and binds us emotionally to views and social practices.
With social networking, music and musical tastes can be shared and dropped at light speed. You can “friend” a rising star and end up hating them in a matter of hours. With digital music services like Amazon, you don’t even have to buy a whole album. You just pick and mix like a child in a candy shop. With so much networking and ability to share and compare, one thing people tend not to do these days is talk about music. They listen in isolation and don’t share. They just consume music. With the arrival of portable music, people now graze as they do other things. Gone are the days of portable music being limited to battery-powered transistor radios the size of a medium-sized child. I carry gigabytes of my chosen euphoria in a pocket-sized package.
Study upon study shows that music affects our moods, health and even our sex lives. I’m also old enough to remember the mass unexpected sales of Ravel’s Boléro. It featured in the film “10”, with Bo Derek and Dudley Moore. It’s funny how a pair of Boobs and some good comedy can make classical music sexy. Roll over Beethoven.
Many who work with our ageing populations, created by modern medicine, known only too well that with the onset of Dementia and Alzheimer’s one of the last things the person looses is their memory of music and their ability to even sing. Music helps keep our memories intact. Music keeps our minds functioning. Music even keeps us learning. And yet, from a biological point of view, music makes little sense. Sex is biological and is about reproduction and survival of the species. Food linked to hunting, gathering, eating and even social activity makes sense, but music is peculiarly human and seems to serve no use in human survival. Some postulate that music is an extension of language and how we as humans use tone of voice to communicate. Couple that with how beats can mesmerize and even create altered states and you have mystical experiences and even the roots of religion? What ever the reason that Music has evolved, in all human societies Music Moves us.
Science is fighting to unlock the mysteries of music, and they have found that the “nucleus accumbens” gets turned on by some nice beats. It’s part of the brain that is linked to the cognitive processing of motivation, pleasure, reward and reinforcement learning. When you have sex it dumps dopamine into your brain. The same with food and with music. Science keeps finding that this music trigger only exists in humans, so whilst some may claim to have a Donkey that dances to Brahms, it’s wishful thinking on their part. It’s just proof that they have trained the poor animal in inhuman ways with a cattle prod.
Music also activates the amygdala, the most ancient part of the brain. The amygdala is intimately linked with instinct and memory. It’s also one of the most significant parts of the brain linked with PTSD, where it develops a hair-trigger for flight and fight. Many wonder how Flashbacks and Re-Experiencing are possible. The amygdala goes into overdrive and triggers memories to motivate you to fight or flee. Your brain keeps on demanding that you are in an environment that is dangerous. It keeps on going trying to motivate you to act and save yourself, even though there is no danger. When you don’t react, because in reality you are safe and in a safe place, your brain starts throwing memories at you to motivate you to flee. The more damage from the PTSD the more your own brain hits you with the wrong memories for what it is programmed to believe is the right reason. Many with PTSD have found that they can help control their symptoms and better manage the flashbacks and trauma with the right music. The music can in fact soothe the savage beast that has become your own brain.
Many years ago I spent a great deal of time with an old friend (David) who had quite an amazing international career in music. As a guitarist he was in great demand for sessions, as well as being the lead man in the bands for a number of household names. He was a genius and could play a guitar in any musical style, and literally mimic any known player. Imagine, if you can, Jimmy Hendrix playing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. One thing that many did not know was that David suffered from life long crippling clinical depression, and with it many suicide attempts. When playing he was in heaven and 100% happy, but he could literally walk off the stage with applause ringing, and within seconds try to take his own life. He described it as having holes in his feet. When he was immersed in music he filled up with joy and happiness, but as soon as he was no longer immersed, all that happiness and joy just drained from his body through those holes. His legs were like down pipes and he could feel the happiness just running away. In his sixties, David finally found peace under the care of a brilliant psychiatrist who finally found a drug combination that stitched those holes up. For the first time since David was 19 he could immerse himself in Music and the joy stayed with him. In fact, he could immerse himself in life and the joy stayed.
David taught me a great deal about depression, suicide and people’s ignorance. I once met David as he was leaving a depression support group. He introduced me to his fellow sufferers and travellers. It was so interesting. They all said the same thing. Depression did not rob them of the ability to feel joy or happiness, it was holding onto that joy, those feelings, that was the problem. When they met up they all had great fun talking and sharing experiences, many very comical. And yet as they walked away, they could all feel that joy ebbing and the tide going out. The feelings of emptiness and numbness left behind needed massive explosions of emotion to try to fill the void. Yet, as soon as the emotion explosion had refilled them, there it was draining away into emptiness. So many had found music that helped to manage the void and the emptiness. One lady told me how music acted as a break-water, reducing the waves in her life and controlling the speed that her tide went out.
Whilst many on the outside believed that theses depressives used “Jolly Tunes to Pep Themselves Up”, the reality was quiet different. They used music that acknowledged their own pain and allowed them to give themselves permission to be a Functioning Depressive, just doing the best they could, holding on! They had tunes and music that acted as their lifeline when the abyss beckoned. Often the music gave them permission to just be, and to hell with rest. When you are robbed of joy and feeling emotions, even great sadness, inspired by music, can be a relief from the numbness. It proves to you that you are still human and capable of feelings.
I make no secret that I’m disabled, but many don’t know that one aspect is I live in untreatable physical pain 24/7. It’s a bitch and it’s my bitch, so keep you faux sympathy off my grass. It’s just a minor part of what makes up me, and I hate it when folks start to strong-arm into the subject with bad advice, want to be part of my life (for their own agendas) and gush with false friendship and hijacking. Ask anyone who lives with chronic pain and they will tell you all about the loss, suffering, the risk and realities of suicide and just how much effort it takes to parent yourself with a raging, fire breathing dragon on your back. And it just won’t take no for an answer. Honestly, most days I’d rather have an infant, incontinent version of RadFem Cathy Brennan in diapers, on a sugar rush with a quart of Red Bull added. That would be easy!
Sleep can be elusive when you have to deal with chronic pain, and many nights myself and David sat together, generations apart, talking and not talking, just listening to music and seeing how it felt. David showed me how to use music to live – to hold on and more – how to live life when all others just can’t grasp what it’s like to be you. In so many ways I’ve had to carve out a new life for myself, and to a great part, I’ve done that with music.
There is music from my past which I still love and yet can’t listen to. One thing I can’t handle is Christmas Carols which hark back to other times. Memories and more just make that too risky. I’ve had to look far and wide for new music with which to sculpt and refine my new life, and find tunes to hang onto when needed.
It even reminded me of a Chris de Burgh song that I used to love, which also features a Christmas Carol out of time, but in just the right place.
Call me a big softy, a Big Girl’s Blouse or any other epithet you may wish, but here and now in May 2015, I’m writing this listening to a Christmas Carol and have a tear in my eye!