When I was in college, several of my dorm mates played the recorder. I loved the melodious sound of that wind instrument and thought I’d like to learn to play it one day. I never found the time. The nearest I came to a recorder was listening to pan flute music by Gheorghe Zamfir.
Of late, music has had little place in my life because reading and writing swallows so much of the day. It’s a pity because there’s a growing body of evidence that says music is more than pleasurable, it’s good for the brain. Its effect is best seen in people who stutter or have lost the power of speech or suffer from Alzheimer’s. Despite their impairments, they all retain their ability to sing. What’s more when music plays, people frozen with Parkinson’s discover they can move. (“The Healing Power of Music,” by William Forde Thompson and Gottfried Schlaug, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2015, pgs. 34-39.)
Scientists have long known the brain is malleable. When damage is done to the left side of the brain, for example, sometimes the right side can pick up the lost skills. Chanting and music with its rhythms are tools used to retrain the brain. Until recently, no one knew how that happened. Now, brain imaging is beginning to give us a clue. The evidence suggests that “during rhythmic auditory stimulation, neural control of motor behavior is rerouted around the basal ganglia,” (Ibid pg. 37.) The brain stem takes over as a way station, sending “auditory input to motor networks in the cerebellum, which governs coordination, and other cortical regions that could help synchronize sound and motion.” (Ibid pg. 37)
Knowing how the brain reroutes damaged functions will no doubt aid in the development of more treatments for brain impairment. Of course, knowing the how of a thing doesn’t tell us the why. Why is music is so fundamental to human life, going back as far as ancient drum beating? Perhaps the answer is as simple as a placental memory – the recall of a mother’s heart beat while in the womb. Or perhaps the memory goes back further, to the rhythms of the sea from which we once emerged.
Whatever the source of its power, music can heal, soothe or call us to arms. We trust it as an inner truth that speaks to our emotions. It never lies or tricks us as words can.