May 1, 2009

Music and the Mind: Why Listening is the Greatest

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Happy Slope Day Cornellians! I hope at least a few of you are still sober enough to read the Sun. And I hope that the actual sun is shining. Today is a more than usually auspicious day for my usually oh-so-humble column.
Why, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. The reasons are twofold. First, today, as you may know, is Slope Day. It is a day about music. Sort of. And admittedly less so this year than usual. (Though T.I.’s fake gunshots may have been pushing it as well.)
The second reason is because this is my last column of the year. Come on, admit you’ll miss me while you’re chasing elephants in Djibouti, or whatever you may be doing this summer. Who else can tell you which Beatles song you ought to like the best? All right, all right, your dad probably can … But can he play it to you on the trombone?
Next year I will be a senior. FML. (Please note — this is the first and last time I will ever use that expression). When did I become a senior? All you freshman at your first Slope Day, let me tell you, you had better party like it’s 1999, because you will be graduating before you can say “I can’t believe The Pussycat Dolls got invited to Slope Day.” In light of this, I would like to be a little philosophical today.
Music is pretty damn incredible. That is my great philosophical conclusion. What is it about music that sticks with us so determinedly, that affects us so strongly? Well. I don’t know. But as it turns out, this is a question that has fascinated many people smarter than myself. There have been studies galore about music and the human brain, and Cornell boasts one of the leading authorities on musical cognition, Professor Carol Krumhansl (psychology). How cool is that?
Did you know, for instance, that your dendrites store musical memories? Facts, like the existence of dendrites, form only temporary little memory-savers (that is a technical term), whereas your neurons remember music almost forever. That’s why you can still recall the words and the melody to Barney’s “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family …” 15 years after you’ve actually heard it. (Admit you sang along to that). And it’s why you will still be able to sing he Chili’s “Baby-Back Ribs” jingle in another 30. So, I think the lesson to take away from this is: Set all your study guides to music!
In other cool facts, it’s been shown that your brain reacts differently to music than it does to anything else. When you listen to music, your entire brain is firing. Normally, you are only using a small portion of your brain at any given time. Music consumes the entire wrinkly thing. I picture this as lights flashing and fireworks exploding, kind of like the scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus where he’s trying to get his deaf son to understand his music. Pretty insane, eh? Why does music make our brains go crazier than Rafiki on acid? Well. I still don’t know. But I feel like it’s significant somehow. There’s something about music. (And Mary).
Music is a lot of things to me. It is fun, it is beautiful, it is inspiring, it is soothing, it is sentimental. In middle school I had a friend who had a song to go with every miniscule event in her life, e.g. “This reminds me of sitting on the playground with so-and-so, watching some ants carrying a yellow sprinkle back to their anthill.” We called her our emotional friend who plays the tuba (and I would like it noted here that she is one of my oldest and dearest friends).
Maybe she took it to an extreme, but now I think she was on to something. Music can often express what we want to better than we can actually do ourselves. It is profoundly and spiritually (and truly, madly, deeply) emotive, and we need it to be. Maybe it’s a support, maybe it’s a release, maybe it’s how we feel when we we’re alone in our own rooms in the dark, and everyone knows it but no one has to say it or share it, only feel it for themselves.
Whoa. Horse-holding moment, please. This is getting intense. You can go back to Slope Day now, and belt out “I Love College” with Asher Roth, and ogle “The Pussycat Dolls” (by the way, does anyone else cringe every time they have to say that name, because I find it hard not to find it more than a little sexist and demeaning … try taking out the “cat” if you don’t see what I mean). Anyway, enjoy your day please. Safely. And thank you for listening. I’ll see you next year. ☺