Naomi O’Neill explores the profound effect of music on our lives and the science and magic behind it.
My earliest memory; sitting on a brightly lit stage, looking into an abyss of darkness from which uproarious applause occasionally drifted, surrounded by ladies in billowing dresses of various colours, dancing on light foot to the sounds of soaring music. Every note from the orchestra’s chamber reflecting the mood of which, we, the characters of this musical, were trying to convey, a mood of excitement, of brimming happiness, of being alive. As I paraded around the stage in a state of three year old-elatedness, I decided there was something special about this scenario, where melody matched my every step. I also knew I would want to feel this for the rest of my life.
And so far I have. You see, I chose a path as a professional singer. I chose to make music my life. And as I look back now at my life so far, outside of its role in my career, I realize I, like most everyone, can be whisked back to many a major memory upon hearing the first few notes of a certain song. A stormy Irish Christmas spent without electricity around an open fire singing old tunes, driving around with the radio on under the glittering lights of Manhattan with a boy whom I adored, finding a great melody while writing a song looking out on a New Orleans thunderstorm, all special moments I hold dear defined by music. Which leads me to believe that music plays a specific and far more important role in our life here on earth than we even realize!
Can something seen purely as a creative, artistic and entertaining commodity actually have a science behind it? Can we even dissect something as magical and mystical as the soundtrack to our lives? Apparently, we can.
In 2009 experts in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, biology, physiology, and physics worked with musicians to unravel the mysteries of music, creating a documentary entitled “The Music Instinct; Science and Song”. It turns out music is helping scientists understand complex functions of the brain and it is in fact coming to the forefront of modern medicine as a powerful aid in healing Alzheimer’s and stroke patients.
I was at a songwriting session recently with an international hit songwriter and he revealed that record companies have been releasing music in a scientific way for decades. Hit songs from the 90’s, when cocaine use was rampant in clubs, were recorded at a certain BPM (beats per minute) to match the audiences heart rate, where as today, the young people’s heart rate is determined by the energy drinks they are constantly consuming and so songs are now recorded slightly differently. So although there may be scientific reasoning’s behind what attracts us to a song and how it affects our mood, it still holds an otherworldly essence.
A few years ago, as I sat by my Granddad’s bedside in his last few hours of life, he had seemingly lost consciousness. But as my sisters and I sang his favorite song “The Isle of Inisfree”, with his blue eyes still shut, he mouthed the words with us perfectly, until we finished, and then he slept.
You see, music has a magic that transcends our understanding. It can move us, sadden us, enliven us, even heal us. And as modern scientists delve in to define just why it effects us so deeply, I prefer to leave the shroud of mystification around the beauty of morning birdsong or the ethereal sounds of a church choir, or even why that annoyingly catchy pop tune makes driving to work on a dark morning a little brighter. I don’t need to know the exact reasons why music has the allure that it does. All I need to see is an audience of smiling happy faces looking back at me to know I’m using it’s magic for good. For me, that’s enough.