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The immeasurable benefits of music

Last night my step-daughter and I watched a concert on YouTube (we have WiFi in our kitchen and a pretty good TV). The concert we watched was Pepe Romero (a fantastic classical guitarist) playing the Concierto de Aranjuez, accompanied by a symphony orchestra. It was a wonderful experience—watching and listening to great musicians make great music.

Romero was in top form, and we were impressed with his dazzling technique as his fingers danced on the guitar.

What’s important about experiencing a concert is the way that it affects your brain. Your little neurons do a lively dance while you are listening to the music, while watching the musicians play.

Not all music can do this—only certain, fairly intellectual pieces. It won’t work with most contemporary music you hear on the radio, but the effect of Mozart, or Bach, or other composers can not only make your brain tingle, it can also make you smarter. Long ago there was a book titled The Mozart Effect. It described how students who studied while listening to Mozart became sharper and more intelligent. I believe it.

After we watched the Concierto de Aranjuez (by Rodrigo) I suddenly remembered another music video, and we watched that too. If you were here, I would sit you down and say, “For the next five minutes, watch this!” The piece was from an Italian composer’s famous work “The Pines of Rome.” The piece has four movements, but it’s the fourth, the last one, which has amazing musical fireworks. It’s impossible to hear this piece without being thrilled to your core.

The piece—all five minutes of it—was played as a countdown to a New Year’s Eve concert in Japan. The goal was to play the last, crashing, chord as the clock struck midnight. (This was the 2007-2008 concert). This particular movement was called “Pines of the Appian Way”—the road used by legions of Roman soldiers centuries ago. It begins slowly, with the tympani pounding a steady, throbbing beat. Over that, the trumpets begin to fanfare, playing military calls, as the rest of the huge orchestra began to come in. The conductor—I don’t know his name, but he was Japanese and he “danced” as he conducted. Such a pleasure to watch him.

Little by little, the piece built up momentum until you could almost see legions of Roman soldiers marching on this famous road. Superimposed over the orchestra was a clock, showing the countdown to midnight. The clock moved around the screen as the orchestra thundered on. It was breathtaking. Then, at midnight, the orchestra hit the final, stirring, chord as “2008” appeared on the scenery. The audience exploded, yelling with delight, as glitter fell everywhere.

If you have YouTube, watch it. Search for “Pines of Rome New Year’s Eve 2008.” You have never seen anything like this.

Even better

Even better than watching and hearing great music (YouTube has everything) is actually playing music, preferably with others, and preferably improvising. Tell you why.

When you are playing a musical instrument, your brain does a little dance. It is stimulated in the most delightful way. And in addition to making you smarter, it also makes you more intuitive. That is, you can sense the way the music is going before it gets there, and your brain is controlling your hands as you play. It sounds far-fetched but it’s real; I have experienced this myself.

I have had the wonderful pleasure of being in several bands. Some were jazz, others were ragtime, others were country-folk. When you play with other musicians, you have to carefully listen to what the others are doing, and hold back, if need be, or take a solo when it’s your turn. Throughout all this, your brain is dancing and sparking at the experience.

Since the Christmas season has pretty much begun and you are thinking of getting a present for someone, consider an electronic keyboard. Although many of our local stores have them, they cost a lot here. However, on eBay, you can find a great little Casio or Yamaha for under $50. It’s not just for music; it’s an investment in your son or daughter’s intelligence.

When I was young, around 8 years old, my parents rented a piano and got me to take piano lessons. This, as it turns out, was a mistake. I didn’t care about playing Ducks in the Lane. I wanted to figure out music by myself, and with help from some neighbors, who all played the piano. Although they weren’t stellar musicians, they were better than me, and had much to teach me.

So when John (an older neighbor) played a song called Little Susie, I asked, “How do you do that?”

John patiently showed me where to put my fingers on the keys. It was not easy, but I liked it. My brain liked it too.

It took a lot of practice in order to play Little Susie, but I learned it long ago and can still play it to this day.

But what I liked best was to simply sit at the keyboard and try to figure how to play for myself. I would play a note, then some other notes, listening how they interacted with each other.

The first song I ever picked out by myself was Lady of Spain. It’s a very simple tune, and I’ll bet you could pick it out too—but you have to listen carefully, so you hit the right notes.

But when you’re not playing music yourself, treat yourself to hearing and watching music on YouTube.

If you have never experienced Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, you have a treat awaiting you. It is perhaps the most groundbreaking piece of music ever written.

Before Beethoven came along, all of the former music was highly structured and followed a form of composition. But Beethoven, “the man who set music free” decided that following a form was not being true to himself. As a result, Beethoven “kicked down the doors” of musical composition and his audiences were overwhelmed. They had never heard anything like this before; especially when the music explodes from a dark, minor key into a gloriously triumphant, major key.

I realize that few will actually buy a keyboard, or listen to Beethoven, but I can tell you this: the rewards are well worth it.

RUSS MASON Author, www.saipantribune.com, www.msidallas.com