Medical Mysteries of Music

If you have a friend who just can’t dance, it might be a neurological problem

[This was my weekly column for – AC]

Back during elementary school assemblies for the morning rendition of O Canada, I somehow always ended up near a kid who couldn’t sing.

The sounds that emerged from him were dissonant and irritating, resembling the moos of a cow crossed with a sheep caught in a bear trap. He was sometimes singled out by a stern teacher during music class for his inability to do anything but drone and squeak. After a while, she just gave up, giving him a passing grade only because of his undiminished enthusiasm for making this noise. He really thought he was singing.

Years later when I was giving drum lessons, I had a mom in her 40s who decided that she was finally going to learn how to play. But no matter how much we worked on things, the poor woman couldn’t keep a beat; in fact, she couldn’t even count to four without losing her place and flying off in all directions at once.

Eventually, we mutually agreed that perhaps being a drummer wasn’t for her. I was reminded of her by the Seinfeld episode Little Kicks where Elaine embarrasses herself by trying to dance at the office party.

Back then, we just wrote off such things as personal idiosyncrasies. Today, the inability to cleanly sing a note or keep a simple beat is recognized as a specific sort of neurological condition involving the body and brain’s complex relationship with music.

Over the last 300,000 or so years, our brains have evolved to be hardwired for music. We’re not sure why, but neurologists do know that there are parts of that three-pound lump between our ears that seem to do nothing other than store and process music. There are areas reserved just for musical memories while others produce specific physiological responses when we hear a song. But sometimes, the wiring isn’t quite right.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38308 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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