“Music is my sanctuary. Music kept me alive.” Sir Elton John, in a recent CBS News profile, could have been speaking for all of us. But most of us are more likely to take music for granted because, well, it’s just always there.
Natalie Angier, in a February 8, 2016 New York Times article, wrote, “We marry to music, graduate to music, mourn to music.” In other words, music is a fundamental part of our lives and has always been, as evidenced by the archaeological finding of carved bone flutes dating back bout 40,000 years.
Our immigrant ancestors carried rudimentary instruments with them: pennywhistles, jaw harps, ocarinas, harmonicas. Pioneers made music with whatever was on hand: washboards, whiskey jugs, stovepipes, bones, combs and tissue paper, spoons. Native Americans maintained community with singing accompanied by drums, flutes, rattles and whistles made of animal hides and bones. They all created their own music.
Electricity and the phonograph changed everything. With Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention we no longer had to be in the same space as the musician. As technology advanced, boundaries disappeared and today we have access to as much music as we could possibly want, sometimes what we don’t want: intrusive music stalks us in restaurants, supermarkets, even public bathrooms. An individual’s relationship with music is personal. Yet no matter how steadfastly we hold to our preferences, music has the power to reach into the psyche and take us by surprise.
A poignant scene in the 1994 movie, The Shawshank Redemption, portrays music’s transcendent power. Shawshank Prison inmate Andy (Tim Robbins), having reached a level of trust with the warden, expands the prison library through donations of books and music. Looking through a box of record albums in the warden’s office, he pulls out Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and places it on the phonograph. He stands as though expecting a miracle. As a soaring lyrical soprano duet fills the room, his body, his face, and his eyes react to the music; he is being transported somewhere outside the prison. He makes a decision: he locks himself into the warden’s office and turns on the public address system sending the sopranos out to every corner of the prison.
In the yard, men pause and turn their faces toward an elevated rusty speaker. No one moves. As the singing continues, we hear a voice-over, Andy’s fellow-inmate and closest friend, Red (Morgan Freeman): “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about….I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
That need to feel free even “for the briefest of moments” is a basic yearning. Prisoners of war formed bands and choirs. Playing in an orchestra at Auschwitz kept some prisoners alive. Slaves sang in the cotton fields to bear their pain. Syrian refugees, packed into overcrowded boats, sing to keep up their courage.
This year, the Zomba Prison Project Bank in a maximum security prison in Malawi, Africa, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Their album, “I Have No Everything Here,” was written and performed by male and female prisoners, most serving life sentences. The album did not win but Ian Brenna, the producer, told Al Jazeera News, “My belief is [that] almost everyone is musical and I think people that are under-heard have even more to express potentially.” One woman’s voice on the album sings “I am alone at the wide river and I have failed to cross it.”
Today, we recognize another type of prison. Many of the 8.5 million Americans living in long-term care facilities are imprisoned within their own bodies, their minds stranded “alone at the wide river” of Parkinson’s disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s or dementia. Deprived of their independence and freedom, residents also lack crucial personal attention due to chronic understaffing. Many withdraw into themselves or become agitated; the solution has been medication which serves only to strand them further inside their mental darkness.
Music is guiding many back into the light. In 2007, Oliver Sacks, a physician and professor of neurology at the NYU School of medicine, published Musicophilia – Tales of Music and the Brain. A New York Times bestseller, the promo blurb says Saks “describes how music can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.”
If that seems like a tall order for music, a 2014 Sundance award-winning documentary entitled Alive Inside proves it works. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett followed Dan Cohen, founding Executive Director of Music & Memory, Inc., who had pooled his background in technology and social work to create a program that would give iPods with personalized music playlists to nursing home residents. He was betting that memory loss was not permanent, that memories could be triggered with the right stimulation and lead to some reclamation of life quality and dignity.
Music was the key. Not just any music, says Cohen, but “Music that connects people with who they have been, who they are, and their lives; because what happens when you get old is that all the things you knew, your identity, they’re all just being peeled away.”
Significantly, the program also brought about a reduced need for psychotropic medication. Residents who listened to their music at least three times a week showed a decrease in anxiety, agitation and acting out that previously led to being sedated. Music is more than enjoyment and as Oliver Sacks states, “not just a physiological stimulus. If it works at all it will calm the whole person.”
The return to identity is apparent in the film’s segment about Henry whose daughter tells us he had been in a nursing home approximately 10 years. As images of a young, handsome, vibrant man float across the screen, she says, “Of course, it affected me greatly because he was always fun-loving, singing….he used to walk down the street with me and my brother and he’d do Singin’ in the Rain.”
Oliver Sacks narrates, “We first see Henry inert, maybe depressed, unresponsive and almost unalive.”
A staff member approaches with an iPod: “Henry, I found your music. Let’s try your music now.” She puts headphones over his ears and we witness what Mr. Sacks confirms: “[Henry] lights up; his face assumes expression, his eyes open wide; he starts to sing, to rock and to move his arms, and he’s being animated by the music.”
The staff member says he used to “always sit on the unit [unmoving]….He didn’t really talk that much to people; and when I introduce the music to him, this is his reaction every time.”
The iPod is removed and Dr. Sacks, reiterating that Henry had been mute and virtually unable to answer simple yes or no questions, asks Henry: “Do you like music?”
Henry responds clearly, “I’m crazy about music! You play beautiful music, beautiful sound.”
“What was your favorite music when you were young?”
“I guess….well, Cab Calloway was my number one band that I liked.” He imitates Cab Calloway singing.
Asked what music does to him, Henry says, “It gives me a feeling of love, romance. Like right now, the world needs to come into music, singing. You got beautiful music here, beautiful, lovely. And I feel a band of love, dreams. The Lord came to me and made me holy; I’m a holy man. So he give me these sounds, lemme see… (singing) Rosalie won’t you love me, Rosalie won’t you please be mine.”
Sacks tells us: “The philosopher Kant once called music the quickening art and Henry has been quickened. He has been brought to life.”
It would be easy to dismiss a film about the elderly as not relevant except here’s the thing: If we’re lucky, we’ll all grow old; we’ll probably need similar assistance. At the very least, we may have to tackle age-related issues with a family member. The time to organize music is when the person is still lucid.
Guidance is available on the websites for both the film (www.aliveinside.us) and Music and Memory project (www.musicandmemory. org). You can order the film, read volumes of information, support, volunteer and donate iPods.
At Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn, President and CEO Tony Lewis said, “The iPod project…didn’t just present a wonderful opportunity for the resident…. it also was a medium for staff to be able to really develop a strong bond with that resident….That to me is the essence of person-centered care.”
“These people are waking up” says Rossato-Bennett. “The process of waking up another person also wakes you up.” When music calms the chaotic brain and reduces impulsive outburst, relationships improve with everyone around.
Henry said, “I’m a holy man.” Every person standing “alone at the wide river” of their dark internal prison is holy and deserves to be ferried across into the bright sunlight of joy and their own identity.
Aldous Huxley said: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Go seek out your loved ones and find out what they need to express.
by Eleanor Ann Leonard