We must tap into the rhythm of emotion

An excerpt from the Edward Boyle Memorial lecture, given by Paul Robertson, the Music Research Institute's professor of music
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The Independent Online

Our culture needs to know why we are musical. It may actually be that in some profound sense our survival requires that we understand ourselves better musically. Clearly, as human beings we are very driven by, controlled by, affected by pulse and rhythm. That's certain from our earliest days. Even before we have our own pulse, our mother's pulse is informing us. So changes in pulse are deeply significant to us. They communicate emotion.

Our culture needs to know why we are musical. It may actually be that in some profound sense our survival requires that we understand ourselves better musically. Clearly, as human beings we are very driven by, controlled by, affected by pulse and rhythm. That's certain from our earliest days. Even before we have our own pulse, our mother's pulse is informing us. So changes in pulse are deeply significant to us. They communicate emotion.

Walking, breathing, even the natural span of our arms, our movements, are all rhythmically defined, and the connection between motion and emotion is, of course, no accident. We emote through movement and we change our emotion by changing our movements.

This is fundamental stuff. And of course that level of change is only possible because we're talking about absolutely universal templates of response that are shared cross-culturally by all of us. We are designed to be musically responsive. We are musical animals. And when we lose the music we lose a great part of ourselves.

It's almost certain that one in four of us will suffer Alzheimer's in our later years. As we lose ourselves, as we lose the ability to recognise our nearest and dearest and we finally don't know who or where we are, it's a commonly experienced thing that the musical response remains.

We filmed a lady who was deeply demented, indeed, she couldn't even speak, she was completely distracted, but she'd been a piano teacher. If it was in a room with a piano and someone began to sing a song, she would shamble across to the piano and she'd immediately begin playing. Suddenly a fully intact person was there, a laughing and happy person. Sadly, as soon as the music went, that person also was lost.

Such things occur all the time. It's no accident: like a union, first in, last out. My dear old dad was on his deathbed and he wasn't demented, but his body had given up long before the rest of him. It was Christmas time and all we could think to do was to go in with the kids and play Christmas carols. My father was fiercely anti-religious; he hadn't been in a church since the age of about eight. We went in and played Christmas carols. He sat up in bed - and he was in terrible condition - and for half an hour he sang all the Christmas carols with all the words, every verse, from memory. Why? Because it was there, deeply embedded, and it was deeply embedded with emotional connection.

Interestingly, it would appear that complete musical memories will always belong to the ages between eight and 12. So we are very locked in to these extraordinarily precise musical developments.

We need to know that. We need to know that individually; we need to know it culturally. If we're sadly losing our integrity as a person for whatever reason and music offers us a way of re-co-ordinating, of integrating ourselves, that must equally be true for cultures. We should bear in mind always that the microcosm and the macrocosm reflect each other.

It's also now possible to explore much of this work in the language and the terms that our culture recognises, which at the moment are predominantly scientific.

There are groups who want to go forward and make a musical brain map. That needs to happen. There are groups who are working with music therapy and music healing in Sarajevo and other war-torn areas. There's collaborative research, forming as we speak, using music with dementias, with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients, and working towards the relief of chronic pain. All of this needs to happen, and it won't happen simply by thinking about it.

Until there is active and proactive change at every level - personal, political and financial - these things cannot happen. The time, however, is clearly right, self-evidently right for these things to occur within the medical domain and in the world of teaching. Now we live in a world which is focusing not on the morbid process but on wellbeing.

How can you have wellbeing if you're not exploring yourself fully? And that includes an aesthetic experience of yourself, an emotional fulfilment. These things have to be addressed.

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