There are times when I find a song that I must listen to over and over – not over a matter of days but literally over and over in succession. Typically it is just a section of the song that I’m needing. I’ve read that music is organized so that our brains are strung along like a heroine junkie looking for a melody that it was first given. That first good high – a series of well struck notes - given quite easily, almost haphazardly and then the song moves on to all the variations that aren’t the same or as good as that first time. And the brain waits, hanging on, looking for the repeat, waiting for the refrain and then (if the song is worth a listen) the goods are delivered. The melody is handed back out, perhaps not as easily as that first time but by then the brain just needs it. So what is it about these songs that I need to repeat, sometimes for hours, especially when I’m writing? Not like an addiction anymore but perhaps the real McCoy. An addiction, an obsession.
Maybe it’s a message I’m trying to receive but my befuddled incompetent brain can’t get it the first time. A part of me guesses that there is something there, something I need to have. So I listen and I’m not sure if it’s in the lyrics or in the turn of the notes. Is it a harmonic I’m needing? Is there a metaphor in the lyrics haunting me? A rhythm that I’ll be able to incorporate into my drive?
So I listen and my mind drifts in and out of the song. Perhaps I’ll dredge up the lyrics from the web or maybe I’ll type them down like dictation. Searching for the meaning – what is it? Sometimes I’ll go further and look to see if some nut out there has prattled on the web with their interpretation of the lyrics for those of us too dense to get them on our own.
Then I’ll lean back and mouth the now-known words, rocking my head back and forth, eyes closed, letting the song roll around my head. If I’m at home I might even get to my feet and stomp it out. Trying to get inside the writer, the performer, where is the climax of the song? Is it like a good novel and the climax is just before the end? What is the theme? If there is a drum line I’ll be swinging it out, or better yet it’s got a strong piano line and I can pretend to finesse it out. Is he caressing or pounding the keys?
I’ve been reading a lot about the brain these days. In fact I’ve become rather round the bend on neurology. I started with the goal of understanding what might be happening with our Ana but I find that the study is often putting my own brain on the table for dissection. The more theory (fact?) I get, the more questions I have. The frontal cortex is the conductor of the orchestra – holds all the cards as it were. Damage here, and here is the kicker about neurology. They know what they know based on damage - long studies of the guy whose frontal lobe was pierced by a tie rod. Stroke damage, radical surgeries, cancers, all fodder for brain study. Know how it functions when it’s broken leads to guesses about how it works unbroken. But back to that frontal cortex, damage here and the brain works like an orchestra with a drunk conductor, or maybe no conductor, or maybe a different conductor every day. Unpredictable results, frustrating to the user, not to mention her family. For myself I wonder about all the changes in my history. The depression? The slow recovery. The sheer differences I feel in myself compared to the person I used to be. I now know enough about the anatomy and biochemistry of the brain to be chilled by the chemical games we play in modern pharmacology.
So what is my brain looking for in these songs? Is my unconscious mind finding something while my conscious mind flops around like a fish on a boat bottom? I only know how it ends. I become numb to the song, eventually tuning it out like the HVAC white noise in my office. My body and brain return to the task at hand and then eventually I change my player back to a larger rotation, no closer to a sound understanding than when I started.