24 March 2009

Make your own kind of music

I picked up this month's Discover magazine with my morning coffee (YES! I was/am one of those dreadful people who will read the cereal box if there's nothing else to read, even if I've already read it) and found an article that came from a panel discussion with a group of neuroscientists. Now that, to me, is breakfast.

The first part of the discussion to catch my eye was how it seems the brain stores musical memories better than visual ones. Panelist Daniel Levitin noted, "The big story of memory revealed by music is that you tend to remember those things that you care about or that you have some deep emotional connection with...there appear to be neurochemical tags associated with memories that are highly emotional." What a cool idea that your brain will chemically tag an emotional memory. This probably explains the morning I woke to a bass line playing in my head, one I can still call up in memory when I'm sitting around somewhere without any music playing. A less happy example revolves around Suzanne Vega's song "Pilgrimage." It was a song I happened to be listening to quite a lot at the time that my father died, and in order to keep it together during his funeral, I mentally played back a section of the song over and over, isolating different instruments every time I "listened."

I guess the question here for me is why would your brain go to the trouble? Certainly, being able to access the Vega song reduced my stress that morning, but I am the sort of person who will assign myself a mental task to clamp down on an inconvenient emotional response. Conversely, that bass line always evokes an emotional response, a visceral sense of joy that goes along with memories that never fail to make me smile.

Levitin goes on to say that he's found musical memory is extremely accurate, and people can hear about 10 seconds of a piece they know and be able to correctly name it based on that tiny snippet. He also comments on how music has long been used to encode knowledge, how, for example, English-speaking children learn the alphabet through song.

Added later because I was still thinking about this when I went to collect the kids: Does the fact that music encodes knowledge answer the question I posed above? Does the brain inherently believe that there is value in the strong emotional response evoked by a piece of music, that one should be able to have quick access to the memory because there is knowledge involved? Is my brain saying, for heaven's sake, play "Digital Man" when you're down because you know--in more ways than one, evidently--that it will make you cheerful?

I wonder what the ability to extemporaneously adapt songs says about the brain, though. This is something I've always done, from changing up the words to the Rice-a-Roni jingle to turning the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" into a diaper-changing ditty (I'll leave my version of the lyrics to your imagination). Another family favorite is derived from feline forays into the catbox, sung to the tune of Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero."

I'd best leave that to your imagination as well. Given the intricacies of memory and the brain...you know, I just don't want to be responsible for creating any negative emotional responses in anyone.

Go listen to some music: "Make Your Own Kind of Music" by Cass Elliot from the album 20th Century Masters--The Millennium Collection. I remember this song from childhood, though not the context, but it evoked a strong sense of dislocation the night we heard it in Lost.

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