March 4, 2004 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - He was a black, middle-aged man who held his guitar close like it was another limb. He strummed it in starts and stops, tuning it to prepare for a free mini-concert at this bookshop I visited a few days ago. He seemed oblivious of everything else except his beautiful music. He had a permanent smile that seemed to me was built note upon note on his face as far back as his infancy when he discovered music. I found myself saying: Musicians are really the ones who get it. I mean they really get it. By "it," I mean a wholeness in being alive and being human so elusive in other forms of endeavors. Music has all the ingredients of beauty, mathematics, style, character, power and emotion. It is an inner life, created inside one’s mind and yet is expansive once it is formed and played.

We also always hear the phrase "music is a universal language." I offer proof. One of my best friends and I got lost and stranded on the Himalayan foothills many years ago because of a terrible storm and we found ourselves with a bunch of gentlemen who spoke no English at all. Over dinner where we had to share the little space with them, we all felt we had to do something to connect to assure ourselves that everything would be crisp and safe the following morning. After so many failed attempts at conversation and charades, we were all about to give up when one of them, a Japanese chap, started what was at first a tentative note guided by one of his hands suspended in the air, following a tune that became increasingly familiar as it got louder: "Tan nah-nah-nah-nah, nah nah-nah-nah-nah." We all followed his hand and at the end of the last "nah," we recognized what he was trying to sing and we all followed in a chorus "...strawberry fields, nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about strawberry fields forever!" After that, there was total rejoicing in that little hut that was on the brink of being inundated by a landslide that night. But hey, it did not matter – "strawberry fields forever!" We finally connected and we found the fellowship we were struggling for, through song.

Science recently discovered and given proof to what real musicians and music lovers have known all along. That music is more than sound when we humans hear it. We have only 3,500 hair cells in our ears that act as nerves that transmit the sound waves to our brain compared to 100 million photoreceptors in human eyes but when it is music, something in us makes more of that sound that comes in. In a special issue of the Scientific American, "Mind," a scientist and flautist, Eckart O. Altenmüller, wrote an article entitled "Music in your Head." It used to be that musical abilities were attributed to the right hemisphere of the brain usually associated with emotional and spatial abilities. However, his experiments have shown that different people hear music in different parts of the brain. Trained musicians appear to be processing music largely (but not entirely) in all its rhythm, pitch and melody in the right hemisphere but untrained musicians, seeming to grapple at first with rhythm, appear to process music mostly in their left hemispheres, the side of the brain that specializes in reasoning and language. Altenmüller said that it would appear that trained musicians perceive music as sound (auditory waves), movement (as one would perform it on a given instrument they are familiar with) and symbolic (as representations of a note on a musical sheet). However, this all seems to even out when the untrained musicians continuously learn and habituate themselves to the music being played. In time, the pattern of right-hemisphere activity in the untrained musicians becomes similar to the pattern of the professional musicians in the experiment. This means that our continued exposure to music, even if we are not professionals, approaches the mental activity of the ones who are trained in it. I think this partly explains why those who cannot sing or play any musical instrument still yearn to have music in their lives, especially if they have been exposed to it in one form or another. I particularly enjoy these people. In fact, personally, I am suspicious of the humanity of anyone who is not moved by music, even by an inane commercial jingle or popular song.

It is also interesting to note what the experiment and other studies it based itself on revealed in terms of specific musical abilities. They found out that those who have perfect pitch (those who can name a note played alone and not with reference to another note played) have "larger anterior, upper temporal lobe convolution in the left hemisphere." I wonder if that is also the one responsible for the talent for trivia and riddles because we have a family member who has the most glorious voice and perfect pitch and we have never won over her in any game involving mind tricks and riddles.

Anyway, emotions seem to play a part too. Teenage subjects who participated in the experiment seemed to register more active right-hemisphere activity when they did not like the music being played.

While this physiology in music sheds a bit of light in terms of how we humans process music, it does not tell us why. Science, as a whole and in its specializations, really does not have answers. Science poses the questions and strives to answer the what’s and how’s. But when you hear the song of your youth, your mother’s lullaby, the funny broken lyrics of your father’s shower song, the sweetest song you once danced to in your beloved’s arms, the song that stilled everyone in the room, the song that made him/her smile through tears, do you really ask why it moves you? Do you care? Should you?

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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