On music

We are driving to school. The radio is tuned, as usual, to Radio 2, the station that serves as the compromise between what I want to listen to (BBC Radios 4 and 6) and what F and EB want to listen to (Capital FM). A female singer from the early noughties is singing live.  The moment that she is announced, I know that R is going to be unimpressed. It would be fair to say that women of the over-emoting sub-Whitney big-voiced school of singing are not really her cup of tea.  I wait for the teeth grinding to begin.  Instead, I hear that too familiar syncopated breathing that indicates that R is having a seizure.  Sure enough, as I look in the rear view mirror, I can see R convulsing.  I switch off the radio. The seizure stops.  Immediately.

R’s response to music seems to us to be more than just the expression of taste. Music distresses her as predictably as it soothes her. While we were on holiday, we visited a restaurant with the children.  The restaurant, although casual, was trying to project a cool vibe.  The music was “ambient”, heavy on woozy synthesisers and lacking in structure.  R hated it.  As we waited for our food to arrive, she became more and more distressed; colour drained from her face and her pupils dilated; she became floppy.  Not knowing what else to do, I brought her downstairs to the toilets.  Unusually, the music was not piped into the ladies. Relief. R perked up straight away. Not just a bit. She was back to her usual giggly, squealy self.  Immediately.

I have no evidence for this, only a hunch, but I wonder whether part of this may be due to synesthesia.  Synesthesia is the rare perceptual phenomenon where there is a cross-talk between the senses.  Someone with synesthesia may taste colours or see numbers as textures.  Some synesthetes experience music in colours or textures.  What if R experiences music like this?  Dark, scary film music results in hyperventilation and real distress.  What if this were because she experiences dark, scary film music as something quite literally dark and scary?  Some of the theories behind synesthesia are based around the idea of an abnormal maturation of the nerve pathways in the brain.  Normally developing infants have many more connections – synapses – between the nerve cells in different brain areas than adults.  The “correct” pathways are reinforced by experience in early childhood leading to a pruning of the redundant pathways.  It has been suggested that some of these pathways, for example linking brain areas responsible for processing music  with those for processing colour may, in synesthetes, survive.  Rett syndrome is characterised by a disruption to development that begins right around the time that this so-called synaptic pruning should be taking place.  Perhaps synesthesia is the result.  Perhaps, indeed, this could be of a more intense form than someone who has otherwise had a normal neural development. I asked R whether she sees colours when she hears music; she indicated that she does.

Regardless, the emotional and physical response that R has to music, has intensified of late.  R doesn’t see why she shouldn’t dictate the music played outside of our home as well as within it.  This really isn’t realistic.  So for the foreseeable future, it looks like dining out will be at Frankie and Benny’s. The food may not be great but at least there classic 50’s music of the sort that R loves is always on the menu.