Winter Arts Guide: Column - Music To My Ears

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“As I play the game of life, I try to make it better each and every day. And when I struggle in the night, the magic of the music seems to light the way.” - John Lennon

Music is a friend who will not abandon or betray you. From music we draw the delight and beauties of the universe whereas friends, with exceptions, often turn out to be tepid, fleeting, cunning and without gratitude.

How does music become such a big part, and essence, of our very existence? The stirrup is the smallest bone in the human body. It rests in the middle ear and is the conductor of sound vibrations to the inner ear. Sound is collected by the pinna (the visible part of the ear) and directed through the outer ear canal. The sound makes the eardrum vibrate, which in turn causes the stirrup to vibrate. The vibration is transferred to the snail-shaped cochlea in the inner ear; the cochlea is lined with sensitive hairs, which trigger the generation of nerve signals that are sent to the brain.

When sound is detected it travels through this labyrinth until it exits into the brain. That’s the end of the run. Humans have the ability to block out or muffle unpleasant sounds like the rumbling of city traffic, sirens, airplanes overhead as if a Minotaur inside our ears stood ready to devour the constant noise surrounding our lives. But the Minotaur can discern music and it immediately opens the door allowing the pleasant waves to run free and float inside our brain.

Whether you’re listening to the driving heavy groove of a Five Finger Death Punch cut or the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven,” both have an effect on our brain that is not seen in any other animal. When you turn the music on a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens suddenly activates followed by the discharge of dopamine. Dopamine is the “pleasure chemical” that gets released when you eat your favorite food or when you taste a particularly good wine, causing you to want more.

Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and music, says that through a lifetime of listening we have learned the statistical probabilities of what chord is likely to follow what and how melodies are formed. Levitin has discovered with lab studies that a familiar song activates the same part of the brain as sex or opiates do.

Songsters play with these expectations, meeting and violating them in interesting ways. The expectation builds anticipation, which, when met, results in the reward reaction. The Beatles were the supreme masters of timeless intricate melodies that slowly reveal themselves across hundreds of thousands of listening. Their music creates subtle and rewarding schematic violations of popular music forms that keep ‘getting better all the time and are guaranteed to raise a smile.’ Or take Pink Floyd, even the name connotes something specific: an elastic, echoing, mind-bending sound that evokes the chasms of space. Pink Floyd grounded that limitless sound with exacting analysis of mundane matters of ego, mind, memory, and heart, touching upon madness, alienation, narcissism, and society. They developed a musical identity that was expansive and eerie, characterized by the band's spacey, somber explorations, which caused deep resonances in the listeners’ mind especially when complemented by hallucinogens or pot.

Neuroscientist and musician, Jamshed Bharucha noted that music allows humans to connect in a synchronized way, helping us develop a group identity and makes us more likely to work together. It was also noted that listening to music plays a major role when one is an expert at what he does, even if it’s something as demanding as surgery.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that surgeons worked more accurately when there is music they like in the background, a surgical team might listen to anything from classical to bluegrass. These studies have shown that it relaxes both doctors and patients, improves the O.R. team’s performance and lowers the amount of anesthesia a patient needs. If you're going to have surgery or a medical procedure, chances are there will be a soundtrack. And you can pick your playlist or artist.

A painter paints pictures on canvas. Composers express ideas through rhythm, melody and harmony. Music is a phenomenon that crosses all borders of nationality, race, and culture by arousing emotions and feelings, and it is far more powerful than language. Where words fail, music speaks. It can be described as primordial, something that shakes one’s inner soul.

Plato once warned, “Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.”

That’s why Ludwig van Beethoven, and he was deaf, said, “Music can change the world.” The 60’s did just that. Brian Epstein, was the backbone of the Beatles. He was ever present wherever they went- a gay man who was a part of the most visible phenomenon the world has ever experienced. Back then, just being gay was illegal, but it didn't seem to matter too much anymore. Very quickly, on the heels of such stratospheric popularity, Her Majesty's government moved forward on legalizing homosexuality. Unintentionally perhaps, that might be considered, with their music, one of The Beatles’ greatest contributions and gifts to modern society.

Music can be profoundly evocative, calling up specific memories, filling us with clarity, joy, freedom and peace within. It has an instant impact on our mood, faster and more intense than any other art form. With just a few chords we are lifted and transported by the sonic waves—suddenly tearing up, not knowing whether out of joy or sadness. While tastes vary greatly, listening to your favorite type of music lowers feelings of tension and brings a sense of the sublime. Music in itself is healing. And when it hits you, you feel no pain. It's an explosive expression of transcendent emotions that touches us all. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and joy to life. And it is all made possible by the wonders of the stirrup, the tiniest bone in the human body.


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