Patterns, Poems

"Poetry is somewhere between singing and speaking," says neurologist Ani Patel. "It's using the voice in a regulated way, with pitch and time. The Iliad and the Odyssey, before they were written down, were transmitted orally -- patterns have tremendous pneumonic power." On Monday, November 19, the Neurosciences Institute will host "A Musical Shakespeare Evening," presented by the San Diego Shakespeare Society. One scene to be performed is from Othello, in which Desdemona sings the "Willow Song." "We're trying to show how song is used for dramatic effect," says Vanessa Dinning, artistic director for the Shakespeare Society. Dinning explains that music in theater is used as a device to dramatically highlight a scene. "She's singing a song her mother's maid used to sing about death. It's very sad, but it's also ironic -- she says, 'the song won't go from my mind this night,' but it's the night she's going to get murdered, but she doesn't know that."

"Shakespeare had a wonderfully talented use of rhythm, imagery, and auditory patterns," says Patel, whose new book, Music, Language, and the Brain, was released last week. "The fact that it's rhythmic is very important because that helps us remember poems and patterns." Listening to music, Patel explains, "uses many different levels of brain structure simultaneously -- the rhythm gives predictability and time, and the melody gives it a temporal organization in terms of chunks that flow logically from one to the next. They connect almost like a puzzle -- each part of the melody has cues that set up expectations of the next part. When we speak, we don't remember the exact words, just the gist of what someone said, but with songs, we remember every word because it uses all these other levels [of the brain]. Like a mental chain, it creates a structure -- once you put words in, it makes the sequence of words easier to remember."

Because many different areas of the brain are used in conjunction to process the combination of melody and rhythm, people with brain damage may retain the ability to understand and remember music. One famous case is that of Clive Wearing, a conductor and musicologist who, in 1985, suffered brain damage after contracting encephalitis (an infection that causes the brain to swell). Wearing was left with a severe case of amnesia. Because of the extremity of his case, Wearing has been the focus of many studies. In an article for New Yorker magazine, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes, "Clive's amnesia not only destroyed his ability to retain new memories, it deleted almost all of his earlier memories." Yet when a piece of music is placed before Wearing, he is able to play it on the piano without error. Like his memory of his wife, which remains intact, Wearing has what Sacks refers to as "emotional memory" of music, "one of the deepest and least understood." To many neurologists it appears that the ability to create emotional memories begins at birth in the same part of the brain that harbors our instincts. Sacks writes, "It seems certain...that in the first two years of life, even though one retains no explicit memories (Freud called this infantile amnesia), deep emotional memories or associations are nevertheless being made in the limbic system and other regions of the brain where emotions are represented -- and these emotional memories may determine one's behavior for a lifetime."

Patel explains that, according to a recent study by one of his colleagues, an early love of music was often traceable to a memory of a positive experience. "It was never a music lesson, but always some event with the family -- at home or in a church -- when music reached them deeply in a loving environment." Music learned early in life may be used as a tool to heal certain mental illnesses later in life.

"It was recently documented that a patient with advanced Alzheimer's -- someone who cannot recognize her own family -- can recognize songs and detect when an error is inserted into a song she knew," Patel explains, adding that there is growing evidence that musical training can enhance one's ability to pick up a foreign language.

The performance at the institute will include acting, singing, and dancing. "In this case, it's inspiration from the plays," says Dinning. Scenes from movies, plays, and ballets based on Shakespeare's work will be presented, including a song from Boys of Syracuse (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1938), the first musical to be based on a Shakespeare play; the song "Tonight" from the movie West Side Story; and a pas de deux (ballet duet) from Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. -- Barbarella

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