Music as Medicine

In the broadest sense of the term ‘medicine’, most would agree without question that music can definitely have positive effects to our mental and emotional well-being. (In a sense it also improves our physical health, insofar as most people cannot engage in exercise without it.)

The Atlantic reports on The Sync Project, a recently launched, Boston-based initiative seeking to further our understanding of the neurological and physical effects of music on humans. The goal is to go beyond anecdotes and produce more measurable evidence for how and why music impacts us, and from there look into any possible medical applications.

You can learn more about this interesting endeavor here, but I am interested in sharing what we do know about music:

Current research into how music affects the body and brain shows that there is at least some degree of influence, physically and psychologically.

For instance, research published in 2005 by Theresa Lesiuk at the University of Windsor, Canada, concluded that music helped to improve the quality and timeliness of office work, as well as overall positive attitudes while people were working on those tasks. A review in 2012 by Costas Karageorghis found there was “evidence to suggest that carefully selected music can promote ergogenic and psychological benefits during high-intensity exercise”. Meanwhile, Stefan Koelsch in Berlin has found “music can evoke activity changes in the core brain regions that underlie emotion“, and physically, “happy” music triggers zygomatic muscle activity—that is, smiling—and “sad” music “leads to the activation of the corrugator muscle”—the frowning muscle in the brow.

“Just because music—or anything else—acts upon a part of the brain, does not mean that mental health can be influenced”, Robert Zatorre, a neurologist at McGill University and a scientific advisor for The Sync Project, wrote in an email. “We need far more sophisticated understandings of what is going on in a given disease before we can really answer” the question of if music can definitively affect mental or physical health. “That said, there are a few promising avenues that people are trying with particular disorders, and hopefully that work will accelerate in future”.

Parkinson’s disease is among those specifically cited as being mitigated by the power of music. I can certainly attest to my depression and anxiety being assuaged by music, though of course a variety of other lifestyles changes contributed.

I look forward to seeing what efforts like The Sync Project discover. What are your thoughts and experiences regarding the medical potential of music therapy?

The Forgotten Inventor of the Piano

Yesterday was the 360th birthday of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Italian artisan generally credited with being the sole inventor of the piano in the early 18th century.

Vox.com reminds us why he remains largely forgotten despite the importance and ubqituy of the musical intrument he invented (just imagine what music would be without the piano?)

We may know so little about Cristofori because he was just a hired hand (albeit a well-respected one). As an employee of Ferdinando de’ Medici, an Italian prince and member of the famous Italian family, Cristofori was hired to serve the court, not music alone.

As an employee of the Medicis, Cristofori was a cog in a royal machine. Though he was earnestly recruited to work for the Medicis, he was initially shoved into a workspace with about 100 other artisans (he complained about how loud it was). Ferdinando de’ Medici encouraged Cristofori to innovate, but the inventor was also tasked with tuning and moving instruments, as well as restoring some old ones. Unlike musicians, who circulated royal courts and could become famous far beyond their borders, Cristofori was a local commodity. He wasn’t seen as a revolutionary genius — rather, he was a talented tinkerer.

At the same time, without the Medicis Cristofori may never have been able to invent the piano. The royal family gave him a house to work in, space to experiment, and, eventually, his own workshop and a couple of assistants. As the wealth of the Medicis declined, Cristofori did sell some pianos on his own, but he didn’t possess anything like a modern patent — other people were free to sell their own improvements on the instrument. He remained in the court until his death in 1731.

A Musician’s Defiance

Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi plays music at the site of a recent car bombing in Baghdad as defiant message to terrorists.

Wasfi said that if there are problems in Iraq then bombs are not the solution.

He said: “We just want to live a decent and safe life like people in Europe and America. Bombing is not a solution for our problems”.

And, he said, terrorists will never destroy Iraq.

Wasfi said: “The Iraqi people want to live and protect their civilisation and heritage”.

“Civilisation started in Iraq and will continue and never die”.

Source: 7 Days in Dubai

Music of the Ancients

Raw Story reports on an interesting effort to faithfully recreate the music of the millennia-old Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Combining musical talent with meticulous archaeological research, this unique endeavor is delightful on both an anthropological and sensory level. You can hear haunting and elegant samples through the hyperlink or here.

More about the team behind this one-of-a-kind project:

…After completing a degree in music composition [singer and composer Stef Conner] got deeply interested in Babylonian literature and poetry—which was originally recorded in cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets.

But the words on the paper, the modern incarnations of these mineral etchings, were not enough for Conner. She wanted to know what these languages sounded like, to summon life from stone. Many of these poems and snatches of writings were sung and chanted, according to historians. The tunes played an important part in rituals in Mesopotamian societies, from funerals to lullabies, Conner says.

So she teamed up with Andy Lowings, who reconstructs ancient instruments and plays a mean lyre, a musical instrument with strings that resembles a harp. The two set out to create music that brings ancient Babylonian poetry to life, and The Flood is the result. It was produced by sound engineer Mark Harmer and can be found on Conner’s website; it will also come out on iTunes next month.

I strongly recommend giving their work a listen. It has been captivating me for the past two days now, especially during my busier working hours. Very soothing stuff.

Here is more about the music from the original website, from which you can pre-order the album:

Out in December 2014, ‘The Flood’ is a creative collaboration between Stef Conner, Andy Lowings (instrument-builder, harpist and creator of the Gold Lyre of Ur Project) and Mark Harmer (sound engineer, producer and harpist). Based on Mesopotamian texts from as early as the 4th millennium BC and composed for voice and the Lyre of Ur (a reconstructed 4500-year-old instrument excavated in the early 20th century from the Royal Graves at Ur), the album is the first ever CD of new music sung entirely in Sumerian and Babylonian. The incredible texts have inspired some of the strangest, rawest and most gripping, otherworldly songs you will ever hear, as well as some fun, amusing and often downright bizarre little excursions into the ancient Mesopotamian world, which reveal that in many ways, people in that remotest of times were actually a lot like us!

As the Raw Story articles notes, neither Conner nor her collaborators claim that these songs are a totally faithful recreation — after all, no human voice has uttered these compositions in thousands of years. But it definitely comes as close as one ever could. Conner studied the Babylonian and Sumerian languages deeply to determine the likely stresses and innotations, while Lowings built his lyre to be as similar to the ancient designs as possible. They even got help from Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who recreated the 4,000-year-old Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, considered the oldest song in the world.

Given all that, I think it is safe to say that this is accurate as the piece comes given all the time that has past. It is amazing that anyone even made the effort! And whatever its authenticity, this labor of love is a beautiful listen. It almost transports you back to the mysterious city-states that made comprised these cradles of human civilization.

The Amazing Language of Music

If you’re like me, you’ve had many a bad episode in life alleviated by music. Whether you’re stressed, sad, romantic, or energetic, there seems to be the right melody out there to help mitigate (or if need be, amplify) your mood. Similarly, there’s always the right song, band, or genre to listen to for a particular circumstance, from studying to work to exercise. Music serves as an incredibly versatile form of therapy, consolation, palliative, and more.

Now several studies have confirmed what many of us have long experienced: music has an amazing impact on our mood, cognition, and overall well-being. In fact, it stimulates and conveys ideas no differently than any spoken language, as concluded by a recent study reported in PolicyMic:

Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a 2008 study focused on observing the brain responses of musicians while they played music, while a 2013 study looked at the fMRI recorded brain activity of listeners as music was played. Taken together, they paint a powerful portrait of why exactly music influences us the way it does. It comes down to one simple truth: Music actually is a special kind of language, one that works on our emotions rather than our reason.

One needn’t look to closely to notice the sheer complexity of musical compositions, which look very much like a written script onto themselves. In fact, as a more detailed account of the study reveals:

In 2008, Dr. Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, put musicians into an MRI with an instrument and told them to play both memorized and improvised pieces of music. When the musician improvised, another musician was put in the control room to play along. The findings were striking: When the two musicians played together, their brains responded exactly as they do during spoken conversation, with one difference. The regions that generally process the meaning of language shut down — the music was simply a communication impulse in structure and intent.

But what, it gets more interesting!

Music acts on the brain of a listener as if a recorded musician were speaking to you too. The 2013 study by researchers from Finland, the UK and Denmark went even further. They exposed subjects to different types of music, ranging from the Beatles’ epic Abbey Road medley to a modern rendition of an Argentinian tango. The takeaway: The human brain reacts differently to different types of music, eliciting very specific emotional, physical and behavioral responses, almost as if music were a map, communicating emotions to a brain even better than words. As in conversation, different inputs stimulate nearly all of the brain.

The study found something even more striking, though. It isn’t just music in general that affects us: Every genre and every song is its own map to a unique combination of feelings and thoughts. As this video recording of an fMRI of a brain responding to tango music shows, our reactions to music can be profound.

This is precisely why quiet songs tend to make you more reflective or daydreamy, why upbeat, poppy songs energize you and make you want to dance, and why aggressive or fast-paced songs may inspire aggressive feelings or help drive the intensity of a workout. Music — like the words, tones, and ideas of any other spoken language — elicits a visceral reaction. And like the vagaries of language, different music has different effects on different people.

But perhaps the palpable finding is that music is as vital to our well-being as social interaction.

different study at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University suggests that listening to music “can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving,” even stimulating dopamine release in the brain — a chemical affiliated strongly with pleasure, reward and even addiction. Like speaking with a dear friend or hearing something sweet from someone you love, music is a conversation, one the brains of listeners and players alike need to keep having.

As someone whose recurring bouts of depression and anxiety are regularly kept in check by music and companionship alike, I can certainly vouch for this conclusion.

Lessons of Hope from

Life is beautiful, extremely beautiful. And when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything.”

My temperament. This optimism and this discipline. Punctually, at 10 a.m., I am sitting there at the piano, with everything in order around me. For 30 years, I have eaten the same — fish or chicken. Good soup, and this is all. I don’t drink — not tea, not coffee, not alcohol. Hot water. I walk a lot with terrible pains, but after 20 minutes it is much better. Sitting or lying is not good.

That was Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest-known Holocaust survivor, in a 2006 interview with the Guardian. died in London this past Sunday at the age of 110. Most people her age (or even younger) would hardly be as sprightly and enthusiastic, yet despite both her years and her tremendous personal tragedy, she remained this way to the end. As NPR noted:

Bear in mind: In 1943, Herz-Sommer and her husband, Leopold Sommer, and their son, Raphael, were sent from Prague to a Nazi camp for Jews in the Czech city of Terezin. According to The Guardian, “she never saw her husband again after he was moved to Auschwitz in 1944 and many in her extended family and most of the friends she had grown up with were also lost in the Holocaust.”

According to the BBC, Herz-Sommer and her son “were among fewer than 20,000 people who were freed when Terezin was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent there and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were transported on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most were killed.”

Even amid the unspeakable misery and despair of a concentration camp, she did everything in her power to keep hope alive. As shown in the Oscar-nominated documentaryThe Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Herz-Sommer, then already a pianist, joined others to perform music in order to lift the spirits of prisoners.

On the film’s website, Herz-Sommer was quoted about the role music played in her life:

She speaks with great pride and passion of playing more than 100 concerts inside the concentration camp and she likens that experience, both for the performers and their imprisoned audience as being close to the divine. Alice is unequivocal in stating that music preserved her sanity and her life — while bringing hope into the lives of countless others. To this day Alice never tires of saying ‘music saved my life and music saves me still.’ ”

The film’s creators added an even more remarkable observation:

Despite all that has befallen her, Alice insists that she has never, ever hated the Nazis, and she never will. Some see in her tolerance and compassion a secular saint who has been blessed with the gift of forgiveness, but Alice is far more pragmatic — she has seen enough in her life to know all too well that hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated.

I’m at a loss on how someone can be so liberated of hate and despair despite so much tragedy (indeed, her son had died abruptly in 2001, but years later she remained no less positive about life). Even as she approached the end of her 110-year-long life, she remained a passionate and accomplished musician — in fact, she was also the oldest pianist. Here is a brief but touching video of how she was still touching lives even at a 109.

Happy Birthday Igor Stravinsky

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was born on this day in 1882, and lived until April 6, 1971. Also a talented conductor and noteworthy pianist, he was one of the 20th century’s most influential and innovative contributors to music. Stravinsky was known for his stylistic diversity and innovation, and his impact remains noticeable to this day.

His most famous work, The Rite of Spring (1913), changed the way composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary. I’ve shared it below, along with his other two famous ballet pieces The Firebird (1910), a personal favorite and his first major piece, and Petrushka (1911), which revealed Stravinsky’s growing independence as a composer and defined his style.

 

 

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Victor Jara

Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez was a Chilean teacher, theatre director, poet, singer-songwriter, political activist and member of the Communist Party of Chile.

A distinguished theatre director, he devoted himself to the development of Chilean theatre, directing a broad array of works from locally produced Chilean plays, to the classics of the world stage, to the experimental work of Ann Jellicoe.

Simultaneously he developed in the field of music and played a pivotal role among neo-folkloric artists who established the Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) movement which led to a revolution in the popular music of his country under the Salvador Allende government.

Shortly after the Chilean coup of September 11, 1973 and the ascension of US-backed Augusto Pinochet, he was arrested. In the hours and days that followed, Jara was repeatedly beaten and tortured; the bones in his hands were broken, as were his ribs. Fellow political prisoners have testified that his captors mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them as he lay on the ground with broken hands. Defiantly, he sang part of “Venceremos” (We Will Win), a song supporting the Popular Unity coalition.[6] After further beatings, he was machine-gunned on September 16, his body dumped on a road on the outskirts of Santiago and then taken to a city morgue where 44 bullets were found in his body.

The contrast between the themes of his songs — on love, peace and social justice — and the brutal way in which he was murdered transformed Jara into a symbol of struggle for human rights and justice worldwide.

On December 3, 2009, a massive funeral took place in the “Galpón Víctor Jara” across from “Plaza Brazil”. Jara’s remains were honoured by thousands. His remains were re-buried in the same place he was buried in 1973. On December 28, 2012 a judge in Chile ordered the arrest of eight former army officers for alleged involvement in the murder of Victor Jara.

(Source: Wikipedia)

A Beluga Whale Meets a Mariachi Band

Whales are incredibly intelligent creatures, known for having individual personalities and even distinct cultures (such that there is even a serious movement to grant them an equivalent to human rights). If the following video doesn’t attest to their remarkable development, I don’t know what will.

I could never watch that video without smiling. It’s definitely something to bookmark in the event of a bad day.