The dementing process in my father’s brain was proceeding with the cold ineluctability of an invading army. Having figured his 80th birthday would most likely be his last, we planned a musical party.
He loved music, caring naught for the artificial superimposition of genre. Driving together through the Napa Valley, he waxed rhapsodic about the beauty of the Mendelssohn piano sonatas we’d just heard and then asked, “Do you have ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’?”
"Ach, ach, ach, Bruce, he's f**king it up completely!"
My son and I began the evening with guitar music. But the main event was my breathtakingly talented cousin, who could actually play some of my father’s beloved Mendelssohn sonatas (*pictured)
Midway through what I thought to be a particularly lyrical sonata passage, my father shook his head disgustedly, leaned over to me and said, “Ach, ach, ach, Bruce…he’s f**king it up completely.” How sad, thought I, that his brain could no longer appreciate the lyricism of Mendelssohn.
However, my father’s “ach (etc)” permitted me to tell my vastly more talented cousin that he had ““f**ked up” musically (an opportunity that the most petty and competitive part of me had been waiting for all my life). He smiled ruefully and said, “I was f**king it up completely.”
Gone was…but the music stayed
Gone was my father's short term memory, gone was his ability to perform feats of mathematical derring-do in his head. Gone was…but the music stayed. So, why would the music stay and the short-term memory go? An argument could be made this would not be a Darwinian-ly correct choice.
Now if given the choice, my father would have insisted on retaining the Mendelssohn over the ability to recall what he had done earlier that day. “Darwin/Shmarwin’, just give me the Mendelssohn!” he might have bellowed in a voice that my cousin had once characterized as “having a boom microphone lodged in his trachea.”
They become alive, connected with each other and with life...
However, the seeming preference for music over short term memory wasn’t just an idiosyncrasy of my father. Just ask the members of “The 5th Dementia,” the flagship group of Music Mends Minds – an organization which creates musical support bands for patients with neurodegenerative diseases.
Actually, don’t “ask” for fairly obvious reasons. Instead, please listen to their music (**picture ). Whatever their neurodegenerative process, they become alive, connected with each other, and with life through making music together.
But how does that happen? Are our models sufficient to explain this? Helpful, but not sufficient, I suspect, because once again, we are most probably up against something that is....yes, "Bigger Than Phil." So to further investigate this question, we will next take a brief sojourn to Ancient Greece (where Pythagoras might have rocked this question in more broad-thinking way 2500 years ago) and then to this really cool pub in Cootehill, County Cavan in Ireland...
* watercolor painting by James Warren Childe 1839 public domain
** promotional photo for The 5th Dementia documentary