Author: Campbell, Bruce

Music on the Brain
How many times have you tried and tried to remember a song, and you just can’t quite remember it. But once you pick up your fiddle, or guitar, your fingers seem to remember the song. Clearly, music is wired into our brains along wholly different circuitry than our more mundane functions.

I have played some shows at convalescent homes, often for people with profound disabilities, due to age or illness. These poor folks would get wheeled into the auditorium by nurses, eyes dull, head lolling to one side. I figured the medical staff just wanted to give them a chance to see a different set of walls for an hour.

But once the music started, people who couldn’t even recognize their own families, or feed themselves would come to life as the music hit their ears. Their eyes light up and they turn to hear better. Smiles of recognition hit faces that were previously utterly inanimate. Feet that were dangling listlessly begin tapping to the beat. It was astonishing and touching to behold – it was an absolute wonder, and very touching.

This past weekend, I went to Trinity County to my wife’s Aunt and Uncle’s 62nd wedding anniversary party. I actually found two Bluegrass songs that celebrated love to play for them (“Nobody But You” and “That’s How I Can Count on You”), and there was an elderly gentleman who, it was whispered to me, played fiddle. I asked him to play his fiddle, and he was all “No, I haven’t played it in years, I’ve been sick, I just can’t play anymore.” But I gently pressured him and his kids fetched his fiddle, and he laboriously tuned it with gnarled old hands.

He was clearly nervous about playing it. He drew the bow across strings a few times, and it sounded pretty weak. “I really can’t play anymore”, he said. He tried a few more notes and started a song – pretty shakily at first. “Ah!”, I said. “Faded Love, right?”, and I joined in. His rhythm was ragged at first, but he benefited from guitar accompaniment. I sang a verse, and when we got to the chorus, he did the tenor harmony! It sounded great!

We went through a number of other tunes (Ragtime Annie, Soldier’s Joy, You Are My Sunshine, etc.) and family members gather around. And the fellow’s playing got better and better as his “fingers remembered”. When we finally stopped, the joy on his face was so wonderful. And one by one his family took me aside that afternoon to tell me how they hadn’t heard their grandfather play in years. I sure hope the guy finds some friends to play with on a regular basis – I think it will add years to his life.

A neurologist named Oliver Sacks has written a book about how music affects the nervous system in unexpected ways. He was the guy who wrote “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”. I think this would be a good book to read – I plan to get it. It should provide some scientific confirmation of what I have seen (and continue to see) with my own eyes.
Posted:  4/16/2008

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