Hearing voices

One article from Susan Tomes’ excellent A Musician’s Alphabet in particular has continued to resonate with me since I read the book early in 2007. The article concerns background music – not the kind one hears in department stores or, reputedly, lifts (though I’ve never been in one where there is music playing – I probably use the wrong class of lift), but the kind that plays in one’s head, whether one is conscious of it or not. She writes:

Over the years, many people have asked me what piece of music it is that I’m playing on the table top with my fingers, or humming under my breath. Sometimes they’ve been surprised, perhaps offended, that I could be thinking of a piece of music while I’m supposed to be taking part in a conversation. And yet often when they ask me, I’m not even aware that I am following a piece in my head while also listening to them. It’s become an automatic process, like that of digestion – essential but unconscious.

Playing on the dining table is only the tip of the iceberg. Like most musicians, I have music playing in my head most of the time whether I like it or not.

This struck a chord. I have a vivid recollection of being gently reprimanded by a teacher for not paying attention during a history lesson. She had noticed my fingers drumming on the table. I would have been about 12 and was playing a Haydn sonata movement I had been preparing for Grade 5. I think my being suddenly made aware of it may have exorcised me of the habit, as it’s not something I tend to do any longer. I now usually wait for a real piano before trying something out.

Reading the bit about music playing in one’s head was an eye-opener, though. I was occasionally conscious before of hearing music where there was in fact none, but now I wonder just how often I imagine music without being aware of it. It doesn’t happen much at home, because I often have music or the TV on in the background, but at work where silence is the order of the day, and especially at times when there are menial or repetitive tasks to be performed, music comes and goes regularly.

Looking through a list of song manuscripts in the course of my work today, I found that the titles alone were enough to trigger particular settings in my head. Examples: “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” (Dring), “Drop, drop, slow tears” (Gibbons), “Lyonnesse” (Finzi), “O can ye sew cushions” (Britten), “Tell me where is fancy bred” (Poulenc). It doesn’t take much for my mind to go off at a tangent. Seeing one line of poetry will often keep a melody in my head for several hours.

In order to check how often I do imagine music, I have over the past few days set reminders to catch me unawares and interrogate me about what my mind is up to. It’s not a remotely scientific test, not least because a) I’m doing it myself and b) I know I’m doing it, and so my findings are quite likely to betray some kind of observer/subject-expectancy effect. Nevertheless the results are as follows:

Tuesday
12.00pm Schütz – Christum wir sollen loben schon
3.00pm Finzi – “Ditty” from A Young Man’s Exhortation
4.50pm Weill – “Die Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit” from Die Dreigroschenoper
Wednesday
9.45am Britten – “The brisk young widow”
11.55am something, I think, but difficult to determine
1.55pm imagined 4-bar melody that often comes into my head when at work
4.15pm Schütz – Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich
Thursday
9.50am Scriabin – Piano sonata no. 5
11.55am Schütz – Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich (again)

The Britten and Scriabin are easily explained – they were the last pieces of (actual, audible) music I had heard at the time. The Finzi is explained by my having happened upon its text, a poem by Hardy, shortly before. But why such a disproportionate amount of Schütz? It’s a bit of a puzzle, but my thinking, usually patchy at best, goes along the following lines: chorales are catchy because they are simple and strophic, and strophic melodies can be repeated ad infinitum without a great deal of thought. The ideal kind of thing to sing or hum to oneself when the mind is semi-engaged. Then there’s that 4-bar melody. Perhaps in order to demonstrate it is not entirely devoid of originality, my mind sometimes produces music of its own, which I write down if I think it’s any good. On trying it out later I invariably find it sounds better in my imagination. To explain the Weill I’d have to follow my train of thought back a very long way. Perhaps I was thinking about bondage.

A raft of questions present themselves. Do I hear in harmony? Yes, always, unless the music is monophonic to start with. Sometimes I imagine performing the music, but usually on the piano. If it’s a song, then singing. I think of music pianistically in general, and in my imagination, unlike in real life, I possess the ability to play things like Scriabin’s 5th sonata or the Vingt regards. Do I hear complete pieces? Not usually, just repeated phrases or motives. I know I made it all the way through the Weill in my head, but I can do that because I know it well enough, words included. I couldn’t do that with the Scriabin. I hear the words of songs if I know them, otherwise I tend to go, “There is a lady sweet and kind / mm mm mm mm mm mm mm mm.”

I’m sure an enormous amount has been written on this subject already, and that there is much still to be written, so excuse my uninformed ramblings. It’s fascinating to someone like me who hasn’t really thought about such things before.

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8 Responses to “Hearing voices”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Much to comment on here – and I’ll do so when my brain is less frazzled than it is now! – but I’m quite astonished that you went three whole days without having an Abba tune go round your had. How do you do it?

  2. Gareth Says:

    Abba is a feast I keep for hearing aloud – I did listen to some last night.

  3. Gareth Says:

    I’m now thinking the second Schütz may in fact be Schein. Not that it makes much difference.

  4. Evie Says:

    Can you hear the drums, Fernando?

    It certainly doesn’t take much to get a piece of music going in my head – a phrase someone uses that reminds me of something (without me realising it – I find myself humming a tune, and wondering why, and then remember what someone said), or some other trigger – must think about it a bit more! Interesting.

  5. Gareth Says:

    Thanks to Himadri it was Abba all day yesterday (and occasionally Sparks, though I’m not sure why).

  6. Evie Says:

    I’m nothing special…in fact, I’m a bit of a bore…

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