Back to Normal with Music
It''s not easy to go back to one''s normal routine, as advised by our
leaders in these troubled times. Last week we tried. Music
played an important role in our efforts. One evening, we went to
our scheduled performance of the musical "A Chorus Line" at
New Jersey''s Paper Mill Playhouse. Those who have seen the
play know the mood varies from somber to funny, even in a
number dealing with gonorrhea! (For those who haven''t seen the
play, the number concerns an inexperienced teenager who, with
the aid of a medical book, diagnoses his first wet dream as
indicating he''s a victim of that disease.)
The next day was our scheduled trip by bus to New York for a
Friday afternoon concert by the Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.
On the way to the Lincoln Tunnel, we sadly experienced our first
in person look at the New York skyline bereft of the Twin
Towers. From across the Hudson River, if you hadn''t known the
towers were once there, you wouldn''t suspect the tragedy that
had befallen New York and the country. But then, I never would
have thought that just going to the theater or to a concert might
be considered a patriotic thing to do.
Before going to Lincoln Center, we spent the morning at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. The object that caught my
attention most was a pitcher, a sauce server made of gold. This
item was over 4,000 years old. I was surprised that even way
back then the Greeks were into sauces. Somehow, it was
comforting to think that the server and the custom of serving
sauces still endure. While in the museum, my wife introduced
me to a woman who walks at our local mall. This woman''s
daughter was murdered many years ago in a case that still gathers
considerable media attention, thanks to the identity of the alleged
murderer. After such a senseless loss, this woman also endures.
At Lincoln Center, as at the museum, all purses and bags were
checked. I also noticed that cars entering the underground
parking facility were checked for the contents of their trunks.
Inside Avery Fisher Hall, there was a sizeable crowd in
attendance but still a goodly number of empty seats. I couldn''t
help wondering whether those empty seats represented people
put off by or associated with the consequences of the attack on
New York. Indeed, the leader of our bus group was advised by
her daughter to cancel the trip. The daughter had witnessed the
unfolding of events at the World Trade Center from a nearby
building that was heavily damaged and had led her own group of
employees to safety. Would that all the stories we hear in our
area have had that kind of ending.
Kurt Masur, who is serving his last season as conductor of the
Philharmonic, conducted the concert. Following in the footsteps
of the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta, Masur has
been superb. And, in my untutored opinion, the performance of
Tchaikovsky''s Fourth Symphony was outstanding. The first
movement of the Fourth Symphony has a particularly beautiful
melody played very softly by the string section and under the
present circumstances brought tears to my eyes. Another
movement involved the plucking rather than bowing of the
strings. As always, I was amazed at how that Philharmonic
string section can sound as though it''s a single instrument, the
precision is so great. The triumphant final movement was
glorious, leaving you with a feeling that you could face just
about anything and see it through.
Our musical day was not over. That evening, we watched the
concert presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington to honor
those involved in the attacks on Washington and New York. It
too was an emotional event with Samuel Barber''s Adagio for
Strings being just too sad for words. And the next day, with
WNYC, the New York City public radio station, back on the air
with a new transmitter location, I could get my weekly fix of
Garrison Keillor. Fittingly, the program was a repeat of a 1985
program broadcast from Honolulu. Aside from the mandatory
Lake Woebegone episode, the whole program was devoted to
music, mostly Hawaiian, which I love. And the presence of the
late Chet Atkins, who died not too long ago, added a nostalgic
touch in keeping with the general mood of the day.
All this music brought to mind an article by Josie Glausiusz in
the August 2001 issue of Discover magazine. The article is titled
"The Genetic Mystery of Music" and deals in part with the work
with babies done by Sandra Trehub and her co-workers at the
University of Toronto in Mississauga. Trehub''s work with
babies and lullabies and such things might not be expected to
generate controversy, but it has. Trehub has studied the
interactions of mothers singing lullabies to their babies and has
found that the babies are fascinated by the music worldwide.
Furthermore, she has demonstrated that the babies'' stress
hormones are diminished when they are sung to.
In her lab her baby-friendly and mother-friendly lab, equipped
with all kinds of toys and flowers and mobiles to make the
mother and baby feel comfortable, Trehub plays music and
watches the baby''s reactions. In one experiment she plays over
and over the standard Western scale (do re mi fa sol la ti do) in
the background. The baby pays it no attention. Then Trehub
slips in a note that is not in that scale. The baby invariably turns
its head toward the speaker. To counter the argument that the
baby has learned to accommodate the notes in Western music,
Trehub plays a number based on an invented scale that doesn''t
match the Western scale. Stick another note in this selection and
the baby does the same thing. In fact, Trehub has found that
babies often recognize the intruder note better than do adults.
Trehub and others conclude that the ability to appreciate music is
coded into our genes. If that is the case, they argue that the
ability to make and appreciate music helps us to survive and
reproduce. Of course, humans weren''t the first to make music.
Birds were doing it millions of years earlier. To explain why
music is universal, Darwin suggested back in an 1871 book that,
because early men and women didn''t have language to express
their feelings and desires, they charmed each other with musical
notes and rhythms.
Enter the controversy in the person of Steven Pinker of MIT.
Wouldn''t you know it would be someone from MIT to try to
knock down this sentimental view of the world? Pinker says that
music is "auditory cheesecake". Like cheesecake, music pushes
your pleasure buttons. Both taste or sound great but they aren''t
necessary for your survival. Another worker, Geoffrey Miller at
the University of New Mexico, has looked at thousands of
albums of different musical types ranging from rock to classical.
He claims to have found that men produce about ten times more
than women do and that the men''s output peaks at about age 30,
coinciding with their peak reproductive period. In his view,
successful musicians are quite promiscuous and beget lots of
kids, thus passing along their genes for musical ability.
Hajime Fukui at the Nara University of Education in Japan
contradicts this finding and says that music actually reduces
sexual activity. In one study he took equal size groups of men
and women and played music of various types for the groups for
half an hour. He found that after listening to the music, the
men''s testosterone levels went down while the women''s went up.
He concludes that the increase in the women''s testosterone would
make them more aggressive and less social. The effect of
lowered testosterone in the men is obvious. Fukui proposes that
music actually helped to lessen sexual tensions in the early days
when humans started forming communities. Such songs as
national anthems, military music, etc. all diminish fear and
relieve tension, bringing people together.
A fellow named Barry Bittman in Pennsylvania performed
another interesting experiment. He had a group of 10 people get
together and beat hand drums for an hour. This resulted in
increased levels of immune response cells that go after cancer
cells and cells infected by viruses. Bittman is quick to point out
that drumming isn''t a cure for cancer but the effect of the
drumming is real.
Despite all the controversy, there is no question that music can
be a powerful force. You''ve probably read of the work of music
therapists in hospitals or nursing homes with stroke patients. The
article cites Beth Abraham health center in the Bronx and
patients who are unable to speak. Yet, when music therapist
David Ramsey appears on the scene with his guitar, one patient
responds by singing, "Hello. How are you today?" Patients cry
when they find they can communicate by singing.
How can this be? Nobody knows. One suggestion is that music
is embedded in us even more deeply than language. Even our
friend Mr. Pinker from MIT admits that music is a mystery that
we don''t yet understand.
Allen F. Bortrum