elderly hands playing piano
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Scientists are only beginning to understand the peculiar relationship music has with our memories. Peter J. Thompson/National Post Scientists are only beginning to understand the peculiar relationship music has with our memories.

As a trigger for memories, music is a uniquely powerful medium. There is hardly a person alive who cannot be cast back to a childhood joy, or a teenage heartache, by hearing a familiar song.

Other senses, such as smell, can do the same thing. Wine enthusiasts, for example, are forever conjuring the past through their tasting notes, and the French author Marcel Proust is widely cited in memory studies because he based an entire memoir, Remembrance of Things Past, on the smell of tea biscuits.

But music is different.

Unlike odours, it is easily preserved over time, either abstractly on paper, or as a learned skill, or in records, tapes and discs. Paying attention to it requires deep cognitive processing of its quasi-mathematical structure, which is known to help preserve memories. And it comes complete with a built-in emotional aspect -- either in its own tempo and melody or through the context in which it is usually heard -- that likewise promotes long-lasting recollection.

It is no accident that the word fugue, from the Latin "to flee" via Italian and French, refers to both a piece of music in which separate "voices" repeat the same musical theme, and also to a dissociative psychological disorder -- the soap opera version of amnesia -- in which a person temporarily forgets their own identity. It might be a metaphor too far to say that memory is musical. But music is certainly memorial, both in performance and appreciation.

Both impose patterns and symmetry on a disordered world.

In his book Symmetry, for example, Oxford mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy recounts a story of Mozart, aged 14 in 1769, touring Europe with his father, and going to a service at the Vatican to hear Gregorio Allegri's Miserere. Back at their lodgings, the prodigy was able to write out the 12-minute, nine-part choral piece from memory.

"The act of recreating the piece wasn't so much a feat of memory as a reflection of Mozart's extraordinary ability to understand the inner logic of the composition," Prof. du Sautoy writes. "Memory, both in the human brain and in computers, is connected very often with an ability to spot structure of connections which allow the hardware to store information in compressed form."

The woman known as E.N., 89, who now resides in a Kingston, Ont., care facility, was once a wartime disc jockey, spinning Big Band tracks in the British armed forces. Before that, as a child in London, she tagged along with her organist father to church choir practice. After the war, she emigrated to Canada as a war bride, and in between raising two children, she took piano lessons, learned the recorder, and led her own church choir for six years.

She was not a professional musician, nor even especially talented, but rather, according to Queen's University psychologist Lola Cuddy, "a deeply devoted amateur."

Alzheimer's came in the usual fashion; today, she is wheelchair-bound with severe dementia, "a very cheerful, lovely lady, but can't recognize her family," Prof. Cuddy said.

And yet, her memory for music is almost completely normal, and now she is the inspiration for a research project to recruit similar Alzheimer's patients to see if she is unique or, as suspected, musical memory can be preserved when so much else is destroyed.

"We are finding that [musical memory] is not always spared, which is important, I think, for our search. If it isn't spared, why isn't it? We don't have an answer there, but we do find there are lots of people out there, at least up to the severe stages, who have really well-preserved musical memories," Prof. Cuddy said.

With colleague Jacalyn Duffin, Prof. Cuddy began working with E.N. by playing her the first few notes of familiar tunes, without lyrics, such as "Happy Birthday", "Silent Night", and "Oh My Darling Clementine."

"She would sing along with the words and would continue the tune after the piano had stopped," Prof. Cuddy said. "It was totally amazing."

The music was central to the effect. Words alone, such as familiar prayers, could not do it.

Even from this single case, the implications were stunning, which is what prompted the recruitment drive for similar subjects. Could E.N. really know "Silent Night" better than she knew her own children?

The same tunes played backwards elicited no response. She would just stare out the window, which suggests she had been responding to the music, not just the unstructured sound of a piano. And deliberate errors in the tunes were met with a frown. "It's not very nice," she would say.

"Musical memories could be stored somewhere in the brain, and for some wonderful reason this part of the brain has been spared in the Alzheimer's patient. Now, if that's the case, then knowing whether they're spared or not can help diagnose the progress of the disease," she said.

"But it might be more that quite a lot of memories are spared, but music is special because there are conditions under which ... the brain lights up and can activate and can access where it's stored. And what might some of these stimulating conditions be? Well, we've speculated that it could be social or emotional context. That is, these are very pleasurable memories, and music is normally associated with happy or pleasurable times, or socially with birthdays and Christmas and parties and that kind of thing."

Prof. Cuddy recalled another clinical example of an elderly Maritime man, whose wife was about to put him in a care home. He had not responded to music in years, until his daughter came home for a birthday party, at which point he grabbed a pair of spoons and started playing them on his knee, to the astonishment of his family.

"How could this have happened? Well, we think the whole social context maybe just activated those old memories," she said.