Sunday, December 20, 2009

You are what you sing

In many ways, we are all defined by the songs we choose to sing. Our favourite ditties say a lot about our tastes, background, age, religion and culture.

singing dog

photo by rgdaniel

Songs and singing help to define our very personality and sense of identity.

singing and the self

There is some very deep-rooted connection between our singing voice and our sense of self.

People with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia withdraw into themselves, they lose the desire to engage in conversation. It’s as if their personality has got lost somewhere.

They struggle with finding the right words and remembering incidents from the past. Many people with dementia no longer have the ability to recognise even those closest to them.

But somehow their memory for songs and singing is preserved. The parts of the brain that work with speech and episodic memories are different to the parts that process music.

It seems that the musical part of the brain can remain intact long after other parts have stopped functioning properly.

singing for the brain

The UK Alzheimer’s Society provides a service called Singing for the Brain. There are numerous anecdotes of people who, after just a few verses, seem to ‘come back’ to themselves again and are able to express themselves socially.

You can read more about it in How singing unlocks the brain.

musical memory is different

I’ve discussed before that remembering songs and song lyrics is very different from, say, rote learning a poem (see my post The singing memory). The words are linked to the tune and hence stored in the musical part of the brain rather than the word part of the brain.

People with extreme cases of memory loss can often still remember music in great detail. One of the most famous cases is that of the British musicologist and conductor Clive Wearing. Due to an illness, he suffered a profound case of total amnesia. Because an area of the brain required to transfer memories from working memory to long-term memory is damaged, he is completely unable to form lasting new memories – his memory only lasts between 7 and 30 seconds.

Yet Wearing recalls how to play the piano and conduct a choir – all this despite having no recollection of having received a musical education. As soon as the music stops, however, he forgets that he has just played and starts shaking spasmodically.

You can watch him in action in a BBC documentary: The Mind – life without memory. It is remarkable to see the transformation when he becomes involved with music.

You can also read an account by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker: A neurologist’s notebook – The Abyss. Sacks has also written at length on music and the brain in his 2007 book Musicophilia which includes a chapter on Wearing.

you are what you sing

It’s as if a fundamental part of our identity is tied up with song and music. Even when our memories are failing and we withdraw from everyday life, a familiar song or piece of music can reawaken us. We come alive again, our personality reasserts itself and we live once more through the music.

It seems that singing touches a very deep primeval part of ourselves. Humans have sung for many thousands of years (see The singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithin) so perhaps it is song and music that ultimately defines us.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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