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Tuning into music inside our heads.

Byline: John Avison

JOHN Miles told us in the early Eighties that he couldn't live without music.

Who is John Miles? He's a Geordie songwriter, whose lines "Music was my first love/And it will be my last/Music of the future/And music of the past/To live without my music/Would be impossible to do/In this world of troubles/My music pulls me through."

If you are of a certain age - say, between 50 and 60 - the tune for these slightly pretentious lyrics will already be buzzing round your head like a fairground carousel.

Talking of fairground carousels, let's try a little experiment. Try to picture one. It's spinning round, all lights and painted animals. Is it going round silently? I don't think so. I think the tune that's playing in your head at this very moment is . . .

The Carousel Waltz.

I remember reading that the average person has about 10,000 tunes stored in that Mighty Wurlitzer we call a brain, and these tunes are picked at random, as near instantly as makes no difference, snatches of which we hum or whistle or sing.

Opera, pop, classical, garage, rock, musicals, TV and radio theme tunes, country, advert jingles, nursery rhymes; the Mighty Wurlitzer brain is indiscriminate in its selection.

I have a mischievous game I play at home and in the office. It's called Tune Virus. The idea is to very gently hum or whistle a well-known tune while your relatives or colleagues are busy doing something else. You see how long it is before somebody picks up the tune.

You've got 10,000 of them to go at, and so does everyone else, so you can't go wrong.

The average person knows about 6,000 words and uses about 800 of them regularly. So music, which is a lot more complicated than a mere word, is the clear winner in the memory storage stakes.

I puzzled why this should be until I read a fascinating book about the lost civilisations of the Stone Age. In this there is the story of the discovery in a cave in Germany of the remains of a three-holed flute painstakingly carved from a mammoth tusk.

A musically-minded archaeologist was unable to reconstruct the fragments, but devised an exact replica from elder wood. He discovered it played a range of notes that had a distinct Asiatic atonality, common today in the music of China, Japan and Indonesia.

Carbon-14 dating placed this musical instrument and other items in the cave to between 30,000 and 37,000 years ago.

It's not entirely clear when spoken language came into being, but it's a fair bet that 37,000 years ago our ancestors were communicating largely in grunts and hand gestures.

And by music.

A second experiment, reported recently in the national papers, has shown that a good 90% of cave paintings appear in areas of caves which have resounding acoustics. The chosen site was Lascaux, in central France.

The theory is that the painters were firstly using sound transmission a bit like bats, to navigate their way around caves where lamplight couldn't be wasted.

Secondly, they were making the sounds of the animals they were depicting, getting under the skin, as it were, of the creature they hoped later to kill for food.

So music was the first love of our distant ancestors. It has a far wider vocabulary than any spoken language and, technically, must take up far more storage space in our heads.

And of course its emotional connotations are immense. Music, our oldest language by far, addresses and stirs profound feelings, feelings that we might struggle to put into words but which suddenly become simple and accessible to all when expressed in music.

I've recently picked up the guitar again after letting it gather dust in a corner for decades. Playing a few chords and singing along is the best therapy after a long day.

Forget your head and foot massages, your goji berries and meditation; give us a tune.

"Music was my first love/And it will be my last/Music of the future/And music of the past."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Jul 31, 2008
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