The first breath.
Music surrounds me.
I am happy.
I smile at my memory of singing in a choir.
I grew up oscillating between playing the piano and taking apart human anatomical models, so I was thrilled when 2019 HAPS speaker Lawrence Sherman, from Oregon Health & Science University, brought together my two favorite worlds: science and music.
The MRI scans of active music-making were fascinating. Dr. Sherman showed how the same parts of the brain are activated when one is learning new music, regardless of ability. Another scan showed an improvising jazz pianist which displayed that several parts of the brain turn off during this intense activity. He went on to explain exciting research on how music can stimulate neurogenesis
As Dr. Sherman led us through this data, my thoughts drifted to my own experiences as a musical performer. As a young adult, I had the privilege of singing with The Canticum Novum Singers; a New York City based chorus under the direction of Harold Rosenbaum. In one particular performance when we sang Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, I experienced my anatomy in a surreal way:
We were on the stage at Lincoln Center looking out to a full house. My black binder filled with music was held high and my eyes were focused on the Maestro. The first breath. The down beat. Music surrounded me; beautiful voices, harmonies, the breath of my fellow singers… then something changed.
As I continued to sing, I felt myself as a beating heart in a body like no other. I was connected by vibrational blood vessels to the singers around me and to my conductor, who was our new nervous system, his motions telling us how fast/slow/loud/soft to sing. A powerful and unique energy field united us in song. The music on the page, a series of dots and lines, were as a genetic code, expressed by each musician and understood as we transcribed and translated our individual parts into a phenotype of beauty surrounding us and extending out to the audience.
In those moments I was a living being greater than myself. A being connected through the power of musical vibration.
Thunderous applause brought me back to myself, but the experience has always remained with me. If a scientist had analyzed my brain during that experience, what would my MRI scan have looked like in those moments?
When we create music with a group, perhaps vibrational waves sum together and create a force grander than our own. For many cultures, group singing is a common practice. The vibrations, tones and rhythms strengthen community and embody the musical history and evolution of humans in a way that an MRI scan can only begin to image.
HAPS gives us another way to connect. Like singing in a choir, working and helping each other solve problems through HAPS brings us together and reminds us that no matter where we are, we have a community of professors ready to help us and connect us so that we can grow in our field.
Dr. Sherman’s talk inspired me to learn new piano music when I returned home. But more importantly, he reminded us all how music can increase neuroplasticity and ignite feelings of camaraderie. He gave us something truly special when he had the audience of his lecture stand up and sing those lovely notes from The Beatles’ Hey Jude. He bonded us not only through being at the HAPS annual meeting, but through the power of music. We vibrated together beyond our anatomy.
We can strengthen that bond through continuing to reach out to each other in the myriad ways HAPS has to support us. I hope we can all sing together again at HAPS in Ottawa, 2020. Until then, we can hum the Beatles tune we all sang together, “nah—nah—nah, nah nah nah…”
Bridgit Goldman has been teaching college-level biology since 1998. She has a Ph.D. in Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology from The Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York. Since 2007 she has designed, developed and taught all the lecture and laboratory classes in Human Anatomy and Physiology at Siena College in Loudonville, NY.