One month ago I wrote an article showcasing how music is beginning to be used as a tool in nursing homes and assisted living to greatly help people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. For those of you who missed it, the punchline to the essay involved a superlative documentary entitled Alive Inside. If you haven’t seen it and have even a tertiary interest in Alzheimer’s Disease, you’ll be extremely glad you gambled the time. Here’s the link. http://www.netflix.com/WiMovie/70299276?trkid=13462100
If you don’t get Netflix, the whole documentary is free on You Tube. Just type in Alive Inside. By the way, of the hundreds of essays that have appeared on this site, that one won hands-down for responses….and what impressive responses we got! Many of you really ran with the ball and you’re already helping friends and family. Bravo and Brava!
Then a few days ago, I came across the March edition of Scientific American MIND. What was their lead story? The Healing Power of Music, by William Thompson and Gottfried Schlaug. It’s better than good, yet at the same time, a bit frustrating, mostly because you want to read more. It touches on several recent breakthroughs with music as the common thread. An easy one to grapple with first:
Tinnitus: 50,000,000 Americans are afflicted with the phantom sounds of tinnitus. Having had it for over a decade I am well-versed on the subject. Sharp, loud noises are usually the culprit and unfortunately it’s cumulative. When I was a kid, my brother allowed me to shoot his Colt .357 magnum. Sound suppressors? Didn’t have them, and my ears rang badly for days and I could barely hear.
Later on in pilot training, everyone first checks-out in the Cessna T-37 affectionately called the Tweety Bird because its twin jet engines make a particularly piercing (and deafening) shriek when cranked up. One minute without your “bunny ears” and you’ll pay the price. I guess some of those rock concerts at F&M didn’t help matters either. Now, I have a strong hiss in my right ear…all the time. It never goes away. Most of the “treatments” involve coming to terms with the malady so you don’t go bonkers. I jokingly refer to it as my on-board white-sound machine. William Shatner (Capt. James T. Kirk) has it as well and for some reason that’s comforting.
Right now, despite all the hopeful snake oil solutions out there, there is nothing that actually solves it or cures it. I have an actual white sound device running right now (spring peepers) which helps, but one thing makes it go away temporarily… Music. It’s not that the tinnitus is not there, it’s that your mind processes the music instead of the tinnitus. It works. It’s good.
Stroke: In the Thompson/ Schlaug article, they focus on an 11-year-old girl named Laurel who suffered a stroke which had no definitive cause. Blood was cut-off from the part of her brain that controls language and thereafter she could barely utter any words at all…….unless she sang them. A reality she discovered accidentally. Suddenly, by putting her words to music, she could re-route the thoughts in her mind to a simple little song she used. It worked and continues to work reliably. What’s best of all, this new pathway is beginning to allow her language skills to return. You just might want to pin this information away if in the distant future if someone special to you…or you yourself suffer this malady.
Musical Memory: As a young adult it became increasingly apparent to me that the songs I’d learned as a child had stuck with me, words, melody, and all. This has its pluses and its minuses. I can still remember my first .45 record…something I actually paid money for. It was The Purple People Eater. Oooh, eee, ooh ahh ahh. Ting-tang, walla walla bing bang. I would put the paper bag of shame over my head right now, but then I couldn’t type. Fortunately, I also remember the words to thousands upon thousands of other songs…without ever once trying to memorize them. Obviously something wonderful and highly useful is at hand. Scientists are just now learning to harness it. This is both an old, and a new and exciting field. We have much to learn.
Autism: If it sounds as if Music is a magic bullet; perhaps for some types of brain connection disorders, it actually is just that. Parents with severely autistic children can have an on-going private hell to go through, constantly trying to break through to that exclusive inner world the autistic child lives in. Music, however, seems to be a bridge, not only for communication but for formulating and understanding emotions…an incredibly important task for autistic people. The studies are many and they all work.
Depression: I’m shooting from the hip, here, because I haven’t run into any studies correlating fighting depression with listening to a schedule of specific music. Candidly, I get my good share of depressions. It envelopes me in a dark cloudy mist shading everything from my vision to my mood to my ability to taste food. Everything just sort of dims down. When it happens, my solution of late is to hit the sheets and take a long nap. Most of the time, that helps.
Last night, however, with the Bucks County weather promising us 20 below and worse with wind chills and wind gusts approaching 50 mph, Pamela and I got a pretty bad case of cabin fever…nothing to do outside and we were Netflixed-out. Instead, I poured out two vodka martinis (your tastes will vary), pulled up two lounge chairs and used our iTunes list of 6000-plus cool songs to cherry-pick the very best of the best. We take turns and it’s sort of a gentle competition. A little hint: driving beats and cheerful lyrics are pretty hard to beat. Pamela and I went from, “What the hell is the meaning of life?” to “No, no, it’s MY turn. You just played Lady Marmalade twice!” Works much, much better with two people. At the end of the evening we’d had a pretty damned good time and, not to beat a dead horse, never thought once about tinnitus.
Age-Related Decline: Sigh… To quote Robbie Robertson (The Band), “Well… It ain’t like it used to be,” and that was said with a twinkle in his eye. Truth is, like old cars without a junkyard for parts near by, things just start wearing out: Hips, joints, eyes, ears, sexy parts, and….our three or so pounds of aging spongy grey matter between our ears. That starts wearing out, too. Except…they are finding that one of the leading weapons in fighting-back against this decline is…. Care to guess? Yes, music helps keep our minds sharp… It’s not too late to buy a guitar, a sax, clarinet or keyboard. You don’t have to be great, you just have to have fun in the process. Annoying those around you is just an extra benny. Seriously, it helps…immensely.
SEX: In addition to sharp minds…put on a little Tony Bennett or Johnny Mathis…or maybe Nancy Wilson, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Bernadette Peters, and you may find that your boudoir takes on an exciting new energy. God I Love Music!!! Pamela and I both have iPads with extra speakers. We know how to make a playlist and it occurs to me as I write, that in ten minutes I can come up with one entitled: Music to…quack… to.
To sum up, think about your mom or your dad or some friend with one of the above afflictions. Think about your wife or your husband….or maybe even yourself. I bet you there’s a category you can find that’ll help make life a little sweeter. For me? I’m switching over right now to Tony Bennett. The Shadow of Your Smile. Better yet, call your mate in from the next room and invite him or her to a slow dance with Tony serenading you. Neck-nibbling is a good starting place. It’s better than sending a rose.
P.S. Seriously getting to work on that playlist now. Pamela wants to kick off with Bolero. I’m sticking with Tony.