Some days music makes me so excited I just want to run about taking bites out of the world – replaying ‘The Choral Links’ while walking over Waterloo Bridge at sunset filled me with excitement the other night – why is it that some of us are electrified by music and others untouched?
I’m trying to understand, because I have friends who don’t ‘hear’ music at all. They don’t respond in the same way that I do. We know that say, oysters will affect a certain part of the receptors on your tongue and in your mouth, and you quickly decide if it’s wonderful or awful, and when you ‘taste the sea’ you decide whether that’s a good thing or not.
But taste is a scientifically measurable thing (although tasting the sea also involves memory). Music seems to respond to something more complex. In Daniel J Levitin’s ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ the cerebellum is shown as playing a key role in deciding how much we enjoy music, but in his ‘The World In Six Songs’ it’s suggested that the reason monkeys don’t have music, despite sharing 93% of their DNA with humans, is because they lack the computational connectivity to combine what they see and hear – it’s not just the cerebellum, but other parts of the brain working together.
Now this is interesting, because this heightened connectivity suggests we combine, say, hearing, touch, balance, imagination and sight to build complex visual images when we listen to music. My partner cannot ‘hear’ lyrics, but to me they transform sounds – is it because I’m trained to select and study words in my job? Words and music become paramount when you think of musical theatre. Like a lot of writers I like Stephen Sondheim but can’t stand Andrew Lloyd-Webber; the former’s music reshapes the carefully crafted words, while the latter seems to simply plaster songs over banal lyrics.
Sondheim addressed the sound/sight question directly in a song from ‘Pacific Overtures’, his show about the opening of trade routes into Japan. In one sequence, two men remember the first meeting of East and West when delegates confronted each other in a treaty house. But one man was under the floor and could only hear the events, while another was in a tree and could only see what was happening. The song is compounded in difficulty by making the men’s memory of the event faulty…it’s an old clip, but worth checking out.