Saturday, January 16, 2016


Steven H. Cornelius
Music and Stroke
Posted on May 22, 2012

At the end of yesterday’s post I wrote, “Functional music helps get things done—as in a wedding processional, a funeral dirge, or the song “Happy Birthday.”

Not all music is designed to be functional, of course. But even if functionality was not a composer’s goal, from a listener’s perspective any piece can be engaged with functional intent. After my stroke all musical experience (whether slowly tapping a rhythm, trying to push the keys on a piano, or simply listening) could have been approached with the goal of functionality. In what way? I could have been using every musical experience heal myself.

Unfortunately, my approach, while utilitarian, was relatively one dimensional. I developed simple rhythmic exercises to get my left hand and foot moving. I sat at a piano using my right arm to hold my left hand in place so I could work on moving individual fingers. (I didn’t need a keyboard to do that, of course, but pushing a piano key requires a certain amount of velocity to trigger the hammer mechanism. Just making a sound was my measure of successful movement.)

But while I used music functionally by “playing” it, I didn’t think to use it so by listening. That was a huge  opportunity missed. Although about a week into my stay at Spaulding I asked my wife to bring in her iPod so I could listen to something, the main reason I wanted it was to try to block out the incessant soundtrack from my roommate’s television. (A friend even brought in noise cancelling headphones with the idea that wearing them might help, even if I didn’t use the iPod.)

The iPod blocked out the television well enough, but I found music equally annoying. I tried my favorite classical, pop, and non-Western selections, but none was even remotely satisfying. How come?

Originally I assumed that the dull fidelity of mp3 recording technology was leaving me flat. Or that my attention was too spotty. Or that my mind and body were too dysfunctional to have a visceral response.

Or that I simply preferred silence.

In retrospect, however, now I think the reason or my negative experience was my lack of active engagement. I listened passively, expected the music to fire me up. Instead, I should have been developing strategies to engage with the sounds.

I should have been trying to listen sensually (even though I didn’t feel sensual).

I should have been trying to listen emotionally (I didn’t feel very emotional at the time, but that may have been a defensive strategy.)

Most of all, I should have been trying to listen associatively and used socio-musical memories to reconnect myself to the world.

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