Magazine Article | “The Key is Science”


An article I wrote as part of the Beach Break Science magazine project.

In 1980, jazz guitarist Pat Martino needed life-saving brain surgery. Waking up from the operation, he forgot that he’d ever been a musician.

Pat had lost three-quarters of his left temporal lobe, an area used in forming memories and processing sounds. Most of his memories were gone.  But the first time he picked up a guitar, his old abilities began to return as if from nowhere. 7 years later he was a virtuoso again; his guitar skills locked into his mind so strongly that recovering them restored his identity.

It’s not clear yet why musical ability can survive major illness or injury better than almost every other skill. One reason might be because there’s not just one “musical HQ” in the brain: melodies, lyrics and rhythms all live on their own circuits.  Performing music involves senses, emotions, time and movement, connecting many abilities together.  Musical sense is embedded across the brain, buried deep in its roots.  And when a song gives you goosebumps, or sends “shivers down your spine”, it lights up the same reward and motivation circuits in your brain as eating good food or being in love.

Even babies can perceive rhythms and notes, and can prefer one singing voice to another when they’re a few months old. Ever wondered why people use a different voice when talking to children?  Some researchers think that language itself developed from parents humming and making noises to calm their infants, and “Motherese”- the scientific name for baby-talk – might be the updated version of this.

Though it’s not just babies who calm down to a tune; listening to music can reduce physical pain as well. If you overdo the dancing tonight, this might be helpful in the morning.

While festival stages are a new invention, performing and sharing music has a long history- as far as we know, there’s never been a culture without music. Because of this, psychologists are interested in how people think about music, and how listening to and playing music affects people.

When researchers ask people why they listen to music, there are hundreds of different answers.  The most popular reasons are because music helps people to change their mood, to understand more about themselves, and to connect with others.

Research also shows that music can help people relax and bounce back from stressful events. Listening to musiccan temporarily increase IQ test scores, while musicians often outperform equally intelligent non-musicians in cognitive tests. This might be because musical training strengthens the brain’s ability to organise itself and keep track of information- maybe due to how deep inside the brain music lives.

Linguist Stephen Pinker described music as ”auditory cheesecake”, an unnecessary rush of pleasure. But stories like Pat Martino’s show a powerful other side to music. (Though if brain-boosting cheesecake is ever invented, we’ll be first in the queue).

Seeing the crowds across all our Boardmasters stages, it’s awesome how music brings different people together. If you’re already a music nut or musician, it’s celebration time. And if you’ve been too busy surfing to stop for a gig, why not give one a try? ”

This is my favourite of the two articles I wrote for the magazine project. While the other article was driven by its accompanying photos, this article needed to be engaging through words alone.

I feel proud of this piece of writing mostly because I stuck to a non-academic, more active style, which I normally stuggle with. This story needed to be written vividly and given more life than my usual writing, and I’m happy that I succeeded.

However, I’m not completely happy with the article. To me, it feels disjointed; I tried to include so many interesting facts about the different reasons for music being important that I sacrificed my structure. Individual paragraphs don’t flow together as well as I wanted, because the facts went off on too many tangents. This issue, of wanting to put all the interesting ideas on a topic and the relationships between those ideas, is something I need to work on.

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