By John G. Taylor
In a recent episode of Soul Music, BBC Radio’s journey through monumental pieces, Pascal Rogé, one of the world’s leading experts in French piano music, describes an encounter with a member of the audience following a performance. The audience member introduces his seven-year-old son and tells Rogé that if his son is alive today, it’s only because of Rogé’s piano-playing.
Rogé is confused. He is a musician and a musicologist. He plays the piano. He does not save lives.
The man explains that his son was born prematurely. The doctors were not certain whether the baby would survive and could do little to help him. One doctor suggested playing music in the ward which, he said, had been shown to be beneficial. It certainly could not do any harm. They put on a recording of Rogé playing Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1.
“The only time the heart stopped was when they stopped the music,” Rogé said. The hospital played the piece non-stop until the baby’s condition stabilized.
In the same episode, mathematician Ian Stewart discusses looking at the sheet music of Gymnopedie No. 1 as his nine-year-old son learns to play it on the recorder. Stewart is fascinated not just by numbers and sums but by patterns, and as he looks at the pages he sees not just the notes, put patterns in the notes. They are visible on the page, he argues, even to someone like himself who cannot read music.
Stewart then goes on to make a much larger—and more contentious—claim. The brain, he argues, has not had time to evolve to like music. Music, therefore, must trigger something already present in the brain that we find enjoyable. That pleasure, he maintains, comes from the way the brain reacts to a piece of music. When we hear a rhythmic sound, certain regions of the brain actually start firing in rhythm to that sound.
“The sounds are controlling our brain,” he says. “It’s setting up its own patterns.”
You Do Not Know What Your Piano Is Doing
It would be nice to believe that it is true that when we play a piece of music, we do more than engage audiences with a melody or a harmony, that we physically alter the way that they are thinking at the time they are listening to us. It would be wonderful to believe too that premature baby wards could raise their survival rates by calling a piano a piece of medical equipment and hiring a pianist to operate it all day.
Neither of those things is likely to be completely true. But it is certainly the case that a piece of music does far more than we can imagine, that when we transform the composer’s notes on the page into movement and sound waves, we impact people in ways that we just do not expect. When we sit at the piano, we like to feel that we are in control, that we know the piece and know what to expect.
We do not. The music is in control. It might not get the audience’s neurons firing in rhythm or save a life, but will always have an impact…an unknowable impact.