The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about, as Francis Crick repeated as we left the lunchroom, connections. (This Is Your Brain on Music 192)
The story of the chapter that ended with the above paragraph was one full of connections, human more than neurological, as Levitin talked about researchers he had read and met and worked (the Crick, for example, is of Crick and Watson, the discoverers of DNA) with to do what it took to figure out what happens to our brains on music. If I knew much about science, I’m sure the names he mentions would be hall of fame ready, but his point has less to do with name dropping that it does with how one discovery or realization connected to what someone else was doing, or what questions they were asking; most of the time, the connections that surfaced showed up with at least some element of surprise.
I can’t hear the word connect without thinking of one of my favorite novels, E. M. Forster’s Howards End because connection lies at the heart of a story that tries to reach across the class lines of English society.
Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire . . . Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Last night, Bill Mallonee sang at our church. I know Bill because of John Brashier, who was my youth intern in Fort Worth and then invited Ginger and me to help with youth camp at his own church. Bill, with his band Vigilantes of Love, sang a concert at camp. Later that year, he came to Gordon College, north of Boston, and we drove up to hear him. That night we met Christopher Williams, who became a good friend and who is a wonderful singer/songwriter himself. Last spring, John asked me to come take part in a writer’s conference at his church in Jackson, Mississippi. He also invited Tim Youmans, who had been his youth intern and is now a soon-to-be Episcopal priest, as well as a singer/songwriter. The third leader was a person named Justin McRoberts, whom we only knew through his songs – specifically his cover of Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy.” Justin McRoberts is on the cusp of releasing a new project, Through Songs I Was First Undone, which is a collection of the songs that helped him make connections. I just noticed that if you preorder before February 23 (there’s still time), you get a bonus EP; Christopher Williams is singing with him on two of the tracks, one of which is the Patty Griffin song.
The more Levitin talks about all we have learned about how the brain functions and what neurons are firing and what processes are at work, the more there is to explore and explain. What we know best is how much more there is to know. Life and faith are no different. I can no more decide to just go about my business here in my little part of the planet than one of my neurons can decide to fire independently without cause or consequence. Both my neuron and I are inextricably connected in some ways we can comprehend and many, many others that are inexplicable and even invisible.
One of the folks connected in several ways to Bill et al. was David Gentiles, my friend who died a little over two months ago now. There aren’t too many circles in my life to which David didn’t have some sort of connection. As I was writing, I thought about a blog post he wrote a little over a year ago talking about his connection with his three daughters; the musings came about because he was listening to John Denver (on vinyl) singing “Poems, Prayers, and Promises.” The chorus catches me by surprise tonight, thinking of him.
I have to say it now it’s been a good life all in all
it’s really fine to have a chance to hang around
to lie there by the fire and watch the evening fire
while all my friends and my old lady
sit and watch the sun go down
and talk of poems prayers and promises
and things that we believe in
how sweet it is to love someone
how right it is to care
how long it’s been since yesterday
and what about tomorrow
what about our dreams
and all the memories we’ve shared
Connect the prose and the passion and love will be exalted. Gather in close and sing to each other. The connections run deep and resonant, my friends, across the hemispheres of the world as well as the brain, across miles and years, through synapses and songs, through heartbreak and hopelessness, outlasting depression and despair, holding us together because it is who we were created to be, as the old song says: we are one in the bond of Love. Patty Griffin wrote
when you break down
I’ll drive out and find you
when you forget my love
I’ll try to remind you
and stand by you
when it don’t come easy
Only connect: it’s the whole of the sermon.