Music in the brain

I suspect if I had not lost and regained my inner soundtrack, I never would have given it much thought. But maybe it’s true to that you don’t know what you have until you lose it. For instance, going back to playing piano alone after so many years was so much more than just starting over again. After I got past being disappointed that I had no technique, I became very aware of the rusty connection between my fingers and my brain. It was as if the neurons were all reconnecting with new wires, where the old ones were frayed and disintegrated, and I was sitting there watching it happen. Then as I learned to play a few things again, I realized that my fingers themselves had memory stored in them. Like a dancer whose body memorizes the movements of a dance, my fingers started to memorize the choreography involved in playing a piece, and I slowly began to rebuild an inner music library.

Then there was my soundtrack. Once I started playing again, it was always there. Sometimes it was annoying when I realized that the song my head kept going back to was whatever I was trying so hard to learn. For years I woke up in the morning with a fragment of a very modern piece I played years ago and I have never been able to find it again. But now I woke up with whatever I had been reading through the day before.

I found I could put my soundtrack to good use and practice while walking from the train to work. Never having enough time to practice, this could have been handy. All I had to do was start playing the music in my head and my fingers would follow; I could feel little pulses in my fingertips as they went over the fingering they had memorized. This connection has always been there. Or it was always there until I stopped playing.

Imagine how delighted I was to read of Daniel Margoliash’s study that found zebra finch males likely rehearsing their songs in their sleep. Here was something else I shared with the birds. They had music running around in their heads day and night too!

I had a little zebra finch whose name was Eduardo. He was a “solo” finch because he had no immediate siblings, and he used to sit in the kitchen window and practice his song. I got to listen in on his attempts at songwriting while I was cooking or washing the dishes. He worked on his song for weeks, maybe months. Although he was within earshot of the other males in the dining room and living room, I always felt as if he was called to pay attention to some other source, perhaps inspired by the view of the backyard garden, or just savoring the solitude of having his own special place in the sun to work on his composition. The outcome of all this was that he came up with a very different song than everyone else. Other males who had siblings had inidvidual songs but they had similarities with each other, which indicated there might been a group dynamic at work as well as their learning from their father.

I hadn’t exactly planned to start talking about zebra finch song in detail yet, but when I locate good renditions of all my zebra finches’ songs I will put them all up here. There has been an amazing variety. And by working in Italian names with their songs, I could recognize each and every one of them.

Something else my brain does on music: if there’s a song that goes with a spoken phrase or the appropriate mood, it will start playing it. Don’t ask me how many times the Rolling Stones popped into my head with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” My brain will use a song as an editorial comment. There have been times when I felt as I was assigned a particularly mindless task at work and quite out of my unconscious came the strains of “M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.” I realize this dates me, but those of you who grew up with The Mickey Mouse Club will now hear it playing too.

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