S3E8. A Most Unlikely Music Man

Have you ever thought about your relationship to music? I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week in the context of writing this blog episode. My intention was to write about the brain benefits of playing and listening to music, but I got seriously sidetracked.

If I had to pick one word to describe my lifelong dance with music it would be ‘inadequate.’

Although my parents didn’t listen to music at home, they offered music lessons to their children. My older sisters played the accordion and piano, but I quit the piano after just 3 lessons. 

I’ve long regretted that decision for a number of reasons, but now you can add to that the fact that playing an instrument is correlated with a reduced risk of developing dementia later in life. The current thinking is that, like learning a second language, it develops a cognitive reserve that can be recruited when your primary circuits start to fail you. The good news is that you can still reap some of the benefits of learning to play an instrument at whatever age you decide to do it. For me, that was 70.

I’ve always envied those who could play an instrument and those who could sing. By elementary school, though, I knew that I couldn’t carry a tune. When Mrs. Wolfe, the music teacher, visited our classroom each week, I’d mouth the words to try to slip by unnoticed. Unfortunately, there was one day when she had everyone else stop singing so she could hear me. It was humiliating.

Even though I had no aptitude for music, my world was shaken when I was 10 and I went to the drive-in with my parents to see ‘West Side Story.’ I couldn’t get the tunes out of my head, I was in love with Maria and I started talking with a Puerto Rican accent!

Through my teens, though, my music insecurity increased (as did a boatload of other insecurities) as I realized that my friends all liked and had opinions about music but I did not. What was wrong with me?

Like all of my friends, I was captive to AM radio’s Top 10. We all had a bedside radio to play music to wake us up and to put us to sleep, and a transistor radio to keep us company the rest of the time. I pretty much didn’t like any new song when I first heard it and wondered why the DJs played songs like that, but then the more I heard them, the more I liked them.

I thought that that was a failing on my part, because I had friends who would get excited the first time a new song was played. In hindsight, I now know that what I experienced was pretty normal. It’s called ‘the mere exposure effect.’ Simply put, the more you see or hear something—unless there is something fundamentally offensive or odious about it—the more you like it.

Coming out of high school, I considered myself a soul man, happiest when listening to Motown artists like The Temptations, Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes and Smokey Robinson. But I enjoyed the popular lineup of artists from that era, too: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Simon & Garfunkel, Mamas and the Papas, et al. I had also developed a fondness for the doo-wop sound of the 50s which is what Cousin Brucie and Scott Morrow played on WABC-AM as ‘oldies.’ 

In college, EVERYBODY had strong feelings about their music, except, it seemed, me. I clung to my R&B and resisted acid rock for a long time, but exposure to new music was inevitable as the occupants of every dorm room had record players which were blasted at all hours of the day and night.

Two doors down on my floor freshman year at Brown was a 6’9″ basketball player from western Pennsylvania coal country who loved Broadway musicals. I owe him a debt of gratitude for introducing me to ‘Hair.’ 

Sophomore year, three Canadian hockey players shared a suite next to the triple where I lived and played Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Helpless’ over and over again because they were homesick (‘There is a town in north Ontario…All my changes were there…’). Thank you.

I inhaled Janis Joplin, James Taylor, The Band, Led Zeppelin, Santana and—at long last—Cream. Sally brought me to her college’s library, sat me down in a listening room, placed earphones on my head and played ‘Abbey Road.’ OMG! Friends turned me on to Laura Nyro and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The only artist I ever ‘discovered’ by myself was Elton John. I had decided not to go home on winter break my junior year and was listening to the campus radio station WBRU one snowy night when ‘Your Song’ came on. I bought the album the next day.

Yet somehow, 4 years later, a guy who had no musical aptitude and whose musical tastes were dictated by his surroundings and who had never seen an opera or a symphony found himself the director of a 3,365-seat performing arts center that was the home of the New Jersey State Opera and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Talk about feeling inadequate!

I knew I was ignorant when it came to classical music so I decided to attend performances and sit in on rehearsals when I could, hoping to learn what all the fuss was about. What a rare and wonderful opportunity I had!

The problem, though, was that after settling into my seat, my mind would soon leave the music behind and think about anything and everything else. One night, I found myself composing a memo while I was supposed to be watching ‘Madame Butterfly!’

This inability to focus bothered me for years. What was wrong with me? Years later in graduate school, I learned that there were different attentional systems in your brain, some that attended to outside stimuli and some that attended to your internal dialog. I theorized that my internal attentional system must have been stronger than my external system. That would explain both my failure as a concert-goer and my ability to tune out distractions when studying. It certainly was a double-edged sword.

While doing research for this blog episode, I discovered that my guess was on target. That internal attentional system focuses on what is now called ‘mind-wandering’ or ‘self-generated thought’ and it is believed to be your brain’s default system. This means you have to expend cognitive effort to focus on outside stimuli, thus consuming units of a limited amount of attentional resources. When your brain gets tired of sustaining its attention on something in the environment, it will revert to ‘listening’ to what you have to say to yourself.

Fast forward to the present.

My music exposure is way up since I re-connected with Sally who has a truly enviable and remarkable relationship with music. I’ve attended more concerts with her in the last 12 years than I had in my first 60! Earlier this month, we saw Mandy Patinkin in Wilmington and last night we saw a Linda Rondstadt impersonator at a community theater here in West Chester. Next month, we have tickets for Yo-Yo Ma in Philadelphia and in June we’re seeing Bryan Adams. In between, we’ll probably go to nearby restaurants a few times to hear Sally’s nephew Jake perform. (He’s really good. You can check out his latest single here.)

Going back to that Yo-Yo Ma concert in March, it will consist of Beethoven’s 4th symphony and his Archduke Trio. I’ve been listening to those pieces and having a fabulous time doing so. I’m hearing classical music like I’ve never heard it before, tracking the various instruments as they flit about one another, being tickled by the trills and thrilled by the crescendos. And now that I’ve heard each piece a number of times, I actually LIKE them! Admittedly, my mind drifts away periodically, but I seem to be better able to sustain my attention than in the past. 

Inspired by that success, I decided to try to spend an hour each day listening to all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies with the goals of staying focused and learning to like them.

As luck would have it, that decision makes brain-health sense. Sustained attention is an important cognitive function which has been linked to other cognitive functions like learning and memory. The research also tells us that listening to new music is protective against cognitive decline. I’m pretty sure, though, that you actually have to listen to it and not just have it as background music while your mind jogs off in other directions.

Now when you add an hour each day listening to Beethoven to the time I spend practicing the recorder and the time I’m listening to my playlist while working out on the treadmill, you get more than 2 hours each day when I’m immersed in music…and all of that time is challenging, interesting, fun and brain healthy.

And you know what else? I’m not feeling musically inadequate anymore!  😀