Art as therapy has been a subject of much interest at Sruti, and we have tried to get people qualified in the field to write for us on music and dance in treating medical conditions. Experts tell us that music usually forms a significant, pleasant part of our lives, actually enhancing its quality. This is true as much of the internal music playing in our heads as the external music we hear in a concert, film or recording.
Conversely, we have often wondered about the adverse effect of noise or loud, discordant music on the mental and physical well being of most of us. While continuous exposure to noise or loud music can most obviously cause hearing loss or deficiencies, it is less known that it can lead to other, serious illnesses as well.
What is unbelievable but true is that music, even very good music, can have deleterious effects on some people. In his book, Musicophilia, the eminent neuroscientist Oliver Sacks relates numerous intriguing cases of epileptic seizures brought on by music, ranging from ‘reminiscent’ songs to “well-punctuated rhythm,” which according to one patient “was for her the most dangerous feature in music.” Sacks relates the story (with, I suspect, ill-concealed glee) that the nineteenth century music critic Nikonov, who experienced several seizures starting from one suffered during Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera, eventually went into convulsions every time he listened to any music, however soft. Developing a “veritable phobia” he was forced to avoid all contact with music. (When asked to comment on a critic, an actor once replied that it was like asking a lamppost what it thought of the dog, and I am sure Nikonov’s fate was “a consummation devoutly to be wished” in the opinion of many a musician).
“Musicophilia” deals extensively with musical imagery. Expectedly, it postulates that professional musicians have remarkable musical imagery. Many composers compose in their minds rather than on instruments, at least in the initial stages. The most spectacular example of this phenomenon was of course that of Beethoven composing some of his best music well after he became totally deaf. Sacks speculates that Beethoven’s musical imagery was enhanced by his deafness, much in the manner of the intensified visual imagery of the blind.
Attempting to shed light on earworms or brainworms, the songs that for no discernible reason enter your mind and refuse to leave, Sacks quotes from Theodor Reik’s book The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music:
“ Melodies which run through your mind…may give the analyst a clue to the secret life of emotions that every one of us lives…In this inward singing, the voice of an unknown self conveys not only passing moods and impulses, but sometimes a disavowed or denied wish, a longing and a drive we do not like to admit to ourselves… Whatever secret message it carries, the incidental music accompanying our conscious thinking is never accidental.” So, beware the next time the spouse goes around humming Kolaveri, kolaveri..