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The Power of Music - Lecture in Review

Thursday 7 April 2016 4:38pm

Professor Warren Tate is a geneticist by day, his work examines the underpinnings of Alzheimer’s disease and HIV. By night, however, he is 1st Bass for City Choir Dunedin. Music has always had a special place in his life and in his family. His mother was an organist and his eldest daughter a cellist. It’s clear from the way that Professor Tate describes music that it is especially important to him. He plays us his favourite piece of music, Elgar’s Adagio performed by Jacqueline Du Pre in the early 1960s, and explains how the music brings back memories of cello in his house, memories of his young daughter practicing for hours a day. He recalls playing ‘Twist and Shout’ by the Beatles on repeat while studying for exams. His life has been full of music. What he wants us to understand, however, is that every one of us has a profound relationship with music.

There is solid evidence to suggest that music is an integral part of human experience. It is present in all known cultures, and follows us back through evolutionary history. Our brains are uniquely adapted to its presence with two pathways which independently process lyrical information from tune. Listening to music activates our motor cortex, our auditory cortex, our memories, emotions, and reward centres. Our brains will process music even when we’re not paying attention to it, even if we don’t like it. We are wired for a world with music, but can it help us recover from illness?

Musical therapy, Professor Tate tells us, is highly effective in certain cases. He uses an example from neurologist Oliver Sacks’ book ‘Awakenings’. A passage in this book describes a woman who under most circumstances was stuck in a frozen state. This state prevented her from feeding herself, from speaking, from moving at all. When placed in front of a piano, however, she unfroze. For as long as this woman was in front of a piano she could play music freely, but the moment she was taken from the piano she would freeze again. When all else had failed, music survived.

Similar phenomena have been seen in people with dementia. The documentary ‘Alive Inside’ demonstrated how giving people with dementia access to music could briefly alleviate their symptoms. The documentary makers gave the patients mp3 players full of music from their lives, and found that after minutes of listening to the music these people were able to engage with others. For some this was the first time they’d spoken in years, and while the effect didn’t last long it once again showed the deep impact music had had on these people’s lives.

It has been days now since I listened to Professor Tate’s lecture, but it has stuck with me. I find myself putting on Elgar’s Adagio while I work. It rattles through my skull, and I can feel the pull of those strings in my bones. It doesn’t have the same meaning for me as compared to what it means to Warren Tate. For me the piece is frozen in its original context. The opening notes play and I remember the earnest expression on Professor Tate’s face as he described the piece, its complexity mirroring his own. An accomplished geneticist, and a talented singer in one, he leaves us with a quote from Frederick Nietzsche: “without music, life would be a mistake”. And as I hit play for the hundredth time on this track, I find that I agree.


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