Music and neurochemistry

I took piano when I was eight until I was ten, and I was terrible. I didn’t learn how to read music in those two years.

When my teacher assigned me a piece of music, I would go home and write the corresponding letter next to each note. I had the keys on the piano memorized, and with the help of my detailed notes, I could learn songs with relative ease. After practicing enough, I’d know the songs from muscle memory, without much need for the music.

I never took band because reading music was too daunting, and I was more interested in sports. Voluntarily engaging in activities involving sitting still whilst also being around a bunch of people was not my cup of tea growing up.

Similarly, I’ve always known that I am a poor singer, so I never joined choir, either. Athletics were my release and sanctuary.

I am so talentless musically, you cannot find me anywhere on the scale of musical inclination. It’s just sad. Everyone else in my family has musical ability.

Even though I am musically talentless, I appreciate the heck out of music, musicians, composers, and singers. I can listen to movie scores all day every day. I prefer listening to instrumental music when I’m reading and writing. In college, I bought six hours’ worth of Beethoven’s symphonies for less than $6, and I listened to them almost constantly. I listened to Beethoven during my workouts before bed.

Music often gives me chills, and I’ve read enough about dopamine to know music gives me massive dopamine dumps. I do not think I’ve always had such a deep affinity for music. It’s relatively new to me.

I did not realize this until I read the book Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. It’s been several years since I’ve read it, so I do not remember many details. Sacks was a neurologist, and Musicophilia explored the relationship between the brain and music.

Sacks told strange stories about how people somewhat randomly acquired musical talent or an appreciation for music. People with epilepsy were featured frequently.

In one chapter, Sacks wrote how epilepsy patients taking Lamotrigine often developed a new and deep appreciation for music.

I had to read it twice.

I knew it as Lamictal, which is the brand name for Lamotrigine, and I take it to treat my bipolar (it’s a mood lifter). My psychiatrist told me Lamictal was initially used to treat epilepsy, so reading about that in Musicophilia was not a surprise. The connection between Lamotrigine and music was a revelation, and it caused me to do some introspection.

I was probably 21 or 22 when I read Musicophilia, so I did not have much to look back on. I quickly concluded that while I enjoyed music growing up, music was taken for granted and it never moved me or made strong impacts.

Post diagnosis is a different story. My psychiatrist put me on Lamictal as soon as he could. I obviously cannot trace my appreciation for music back to a specific day, but I am certain taking Lamictal opened me up to the depths of a world I ignored for most of my life.

Early on in my college career—probably before I read Musicophilia—I bought my first Hans Zimmer soundtrack. I bought Man of Steel and instantly fell in love with the epic score.

I listened to Man of Steel obsessively when I first bought it. On some level, listening to music is almost pointless when I’m reading because I cannot multitask, and I’ll miss an entire album because I am so engrossed in the book.

One day, I was reading a book and listening to the score, when I suddenly got chills. It wasn’t cold, and I was reading a nonfiction book that would not elicit chills. I stopped reading and tried to figure out why I’d suddenly broken out in goosebumps all over my body. I tuned into the music, and I quickly discovered that was the precursor.

The song is called Flight, and it builds to epic proportions with the heavy use of French Horns (consequently, my favorite instrument besides the piano). The song still gives me chills sometimes. I own quite a few Hans Zimmer scores, and chills are commonplace. I’ve found instrumental music is more apt to give me chills than vocals alone.

This whole topic is fascinating to me. I am so thankful for music, not to mention medication that keeps me sane and gives me the added bonus of some interesting neurochemistry.

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