My Brain on Music

Photo credit: Morgan Alexander

Photo credit: Morgan Alexander

It was 5 am and the notes were still flowing. I’d been sharing that dingy basement practice room with an old grand piano and my laptop for 3 days, composing deep into the night and going to bed in the morning. After weeks of struggling to come up with any meaningful ideas, the past few days brought a wash of inspiration. Just in time, too; the score I was working on was due the following day. Call it grace under pressure, call it the muse; whatever it was, it was suddenly there and I was ecstatic.

Those were the moments I relished most as a musician—the infrequent but unadulterated rushes of creativity. I was discovering music at a fundamental level, music that came from within my own mind. I had stumbled into both a Biology and Music Major (what the heck do these have to do with each other!?), lead by true fascination but only a vague sense of direction. I had no idea how I was supposed to reconcile these two interests, and as a result felt a pervasive unease. As a confused freshman pursuing both an arts and science degree, I felt the least torn about my future during these moments of muse.

Fast-forward 2-3 years and I was still entrenched in music, but I wasn’t composing anymore. I had stumbled my way into a research lab and was given the opportunity to combine my two passions: music and the brain. I worked with Dr. Flavio Frohlich, a neuroscientist with the manic dream of revolutionizing psychiatry with brain stimulation, and Dr. Dorita Berger, a pioneering music therapist crazy enough to try to inform her own field with mechanistic research. Both of these mentors were outspoken, brilliant in their own right, and wildly innovative. Together, we drew parallels between the ability to keep the beat and the electrical rhythms of the brain; we systematized music therapy in an unprecedented way and determined just how playing rhythms can impact the body. This was an unbelievably tumultuous, exciting time in my life.  

As I was wrapping up college I finally knew I was never meant to be a musician in the traditional sense. I hated performing, and loved the uncertainty, challenge, and impetus that scientific research provided. All of that being said, a part of me was still sad. I missed the muse in the music—the creative moments that would strike and seize me, drawing me away from work, friends, and sleep, dragging me, a head full of notes and emotions, to the keyboard and the score.

Suddenly I stopped, struck by a realization: the experiences that were most rewarding in my time as a musician were identical to my most rewarding experiences as a scientist.

Skip ahead another year. I don’t really do music anymore. I don’t have music classes, or lessons, or fellow students to play with. I sometimes play old pieces on my keyboard in my room and try to remain in at least a semi-consistent habit of practicing. It’s been a tough year. I’m still in the Frohlich Lab, working on a cognitive neuroscience project.

Doing research full time is difficult. I’m always wrong, I’m always drowning, even if I know it will get better eventually. Learning the ins and outs of neuroscience takes time, but most often I feel that I have little to contribute to the group.  

Photo credit: Morgan Alexander

Photo credit: Morgan Alexander

However, today was different. Dr. Frohlich and I were spitballing new ideas for a music and neuroscience grant. He was asking me questions earnestly. For once I felt that I had some meaningful expertise, some of my own knowledge and creativity to contribute. I walked home with my eyes hard and fixed on the ground, not actually seeing any of it. Ideas were murmuring around in my head. Something was there, just out of reach. I could almost hear what notes came next…

It was ridiculously late all of a sudden, and I was still up drawing on a white board. I had dug up old research articles and was seeing them in a whole new light; the muse was here and the ideas were flowing freely. Disparate research fields suddenly seemed so close to each other, and in my mind, the connections between them were profound. Before passing out, I emailed Dr. Frohlich requesting to discuss my proposal. I was so giddy I could hardly sleep.

The next morning I babbled my ideas frantically to one of the post-doctoral researchers in the lab. He helped me organize my thoughts and provided his own feedback. I spent the rest of the day anxiously mulling over my ideas, until Dr. Frohlich showed up at 5 pm. We spent the next few hours talking together about my brainchild and how it could be implemented in a research study design.The energy in the room was palpable. Each concept built on the previous one as we excitedly went back and forth.

“This is what I originally imagined running a lab would be like…” He said wistfully. My eyes were wide and watery as I tried to catch all of the thoughts floating about the room.

I walked home later, emotionally drained but at peace. I had done it. I had come up with a novel and meaningful scientific contribution of my own. Suddenly I stopped, struck by a realization: the experiences that were most rewarding in my time as a musician were identical to my most rewarding experiences as a scientist. The creative rush, the muse, the act of bringing something novel into the world—that was what I missed most about being a musician. And incredibly, that was what I realized that I still possessed as a scientist. Just like it took hours of practicing scales and analyzing scores to teach and prime my mind to be able to compose new music, it took hours and hours of reading papers and synthesizing ideas to give me the perspective to uncover original, worthwhile questions to pursue. 

These moments of creation, discovery, and inspiration are what I live for. Though I haven’t had the chance to test my hypotheses yet, this epiphany moved me deeply. It solidified my intentions to become a scientist. It made me realize I haven’t really left anything behind. I am still a musician, even if I perform less than I used to. My genre is somewhat atypical: I compose ideas about the mind.


Photo credit: Morgan Alexander

Photo credit: Morgan Alexander


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