Ah, the image: I am seated at a magnificent golden harp, my flowing blonde tresses resting on my shoulders, my tall, slender body leaning slightly forward, long fingers playing glissando after glissando. I am just warming up, but I am already enraptured.
Oh, the reality: It’s true that I’m thin and have long fingers. The rest of the description is more problematic. I’m short (slightly shorter each year) and my hair, though longer than it was pre-COVID, is definitely untresslike—closer to distresslike.
It’s also never been blonde; it’s brown, flecked with what I’m sure is more gray since the pandemic began. In fact, if the folks from the Pantone Color Institute were seeking a new description, I think “pandemic gray” would be appropriate.
But that’s the least of my worries. In fact, I never really wanted blonde hair except as part of my harp fantasy.
To round out the picture, I guess it’s worth noting that as far as I know, I have zero musical ability. I’ve never studied a musical instrument and can’t carry a tune. ( I did, however, lead the band when I was the drum majorette as a high school senior.)
But I do love music—all kinds of music—and get a special chill when I hear the elegance of a harp. I’m also fascinated by the concept of music and the brain, so I did a little research.
Note: everything about this topic is complex. Indeed, there are actually nine areas of the brain participating in our hearing and/or making music, with different parts involving rhythm, tone, tempo, and the like. I have simply tiptoed into this complicated topic. (You can click here if you’re interested in a neat graphic depicting the various areas—where they’re located, what they’re called, and what they do.)
That special chill, the critical emotional component of music, is largely created through the nucleus accumbens (NA), the pleasure and rewards center of the brain, and is intricately related to the neurotransmitter dopamine (DA), which—depending on the amount and our personal makeup—has the potential to make us happy or sad.
So music can act on us like chocolate, or sex, or cocaine. One neuroscientist, Kiminobu Sugaya, said in the article cited above that “music can be a very addictive drug because it’s also acting on the same part of the brain as illegal drugs.”
My mind immediately went to the many talented young musicians who died prematurely of drug overdoses.
That’s simply an interesting aside that most of us needn’t worry about. And it has nothing to do with why it’s suddenly become very important to me to make music.
I’ve repeatedly heard that as we age, one very good way to forestall dementia is to learn to play a musical instrument. I wasn’t surprised to learn from the research that the musician’s brain is noticeably different from the rest of ours. The differences are so noticeable, according to famed neurologist Oliver Sacks in a talk on NPR, that they are apparent with the naked eye.
Musicians, who obviously practice many hours a day, have greater development in various parts of the brain. Sacks mentioned enlargement of the corpus callosum: the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the brain’s left and right hemispheres.
One scientist found that when musicians listen to someone playing the piano, about 25% more of the auditory regions in their left hemisphere respond than is the case with nonmusicians, a phenomenon associated with musical tones.
And musicians who play the keyboard have better development of a certain area (the omega sign of the precentral gyrus) of the left hemisphere that’s associated with hand and finger movements, while that portion was found to be more prominent in the right hemisphere for string players.
There’s an increase in the gray matter nerve cells in musicians, a very good thing. And, though I’m skipping a bunch of steps, once music has been learned, it moves into the cerebellum, which coordinates voluntary motor movements. This is the part that interests me most.
When music has finally taken up residence in the cerebellum, it remains, and can be called up even when dementia or a stroke has damaged brain function. The stories are remarkable.
Sacks tells of a man whose daughter had written to him about her father and then brought him for a visit. The man had played the baritone part in an a cappella singing group for nearly 40 years. He’d begun showing signs of Alzheimer’s 13 years earlier, when he was 67.
“He has no idea what he did for a living, where he is living now, or what he did ten minutes ago. Almost every memory is gone. Except for the music. In fact, he opened for the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in Detroit this past November.
“The evening he performed, he had no idea how to tie a tie…he got lost on the way to the stage—but the performance? Perfect…He performed beautifully and remembered all the parts and words.”
Music therapy has been used to enhance the lives of dementia patients even more severely afflicted than this man. It’s a wonderful field that has also improved the lives of many stricken with strokes, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and other brain-associated diseases or injuries.
I would love to write more about all this, but I fear I’ll soon be venturing too far into the reeds (!) for a blog post.
So I’ll move on to my personal musical quest, hoping you’re accompanying me.
I concluded that though I can’t fight whatever may lie ahead, and it’s probably too late to flex my corpus callosum muscles, it surely won’t hurt to try to tackle a musical instrument and put in some time each day—even if it’s just for the hell of it.
Briefly, very briefly, I considered seeking to fulfill my longheld dream and trying the harp. A nice young woman on YouTube promised that some people had become professional harpists even though they’d started in their mid-20s. Well, I’d passed that threshold quite a while ago.
But then she added kindly: “even people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s…” can learn to play the harp (under her tutelage). I listened to a few beautiful examples, considered for a nanosecond, and realized I simply didn’t have it in me to pursue that particular grandiose dream.
We have a piano sitting in our living room, once played beautifully by my older daughter. For a while, our answering machine message contained her rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the background, which never ceased to delight me.
Yet with my current musical knowledge confined to “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” I found the piano too daunting. At least for now.
Then I stumbled, truly stumbled, on GarageBand, the music composition app that had all this time been mutely residing within my iPhone. Suddenly there was a keyboard, and I could plunk away to my heart’s content.
New worlds opened up. I am actually making music—indeed, even composing a little bit. Not a harp in sight, but I have been on the keyboard and the guitar—played some minor blues last night. And GarageBand is certainly easier on my delicate fingers than real strings would be.
I’ll acknowledge that I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m faced with a page that is filled with arcane stuff. I knew this effort wouldn’t be a snap when I found YouTube video how-tos for GarageBand that were definitely not for my newbie level.
And when I saw the telltale ad for the book GarageBand for Dummies, I was reminded of the weeks when I was first thinking about starting a blog, and my techie daughter suggested Blogging for Dummies. I dutifully bought the book, eagerly opened it—and understood not a word.
But with GarageBand, I get immediate feedback because I can make sounds. Mastery is not my goal. I may not even be increasing my gray matter or strengthening my corpus callosum. But I’m making music, dammit, and that’s a joy. If some of it finds its way to my cerebellum, that’s all to the good. In the meantime, a little more dopamine is a very lovely thing!
And I can still listen to this—and dream.
Have a lovely weekend, stay safe, and wear your masks!