Monday, December 12, 2022

Q&A with Adriana Barton




Adriana Barton is the author of the new book Wired for Music: A Search for Health and Joy Through the Science of Sound. A former staff reporter at the Globe and Mail, she studied the cello for 17 years. She's based in Vancouver, Canada.


Q: What inspired you to write Wired for Music, and what impact did writing the book have on you?


A: It started with being fascinated by the science of music cognition, which didn’t exist when I was a musician in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It didn’t begin until the ‘90s, when the U.S. president declared it the decade of the brain. The critical mass began in the aughts and the 2010s.


I saw the studies as a health journalist—I had spent time playing the cello without understanding what was happening in my brain.


Readers [of the manuscript] said we want to know more about the personal side, and I found myself making connections between my research and my own emotional baggage, and coming to terms with things.


I found myself opening boxes of mementos in the garage. I found a program from Carnegie Hall with my name, and an album cover that Yo-Yo Ma had signed for me, and evaluations of my performance as a very young person. The objects said a lot. It’s powerful to see objects, newspaper clippings, and remember how I felt about the gap between my outer achievements and my inner feelings.


I wish I had this book as a young person struggling with what the whole music endeavor meant.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between memoir and science as you wrote the book? Did you go back and forth?


A: I certainly did. That was one of the biggest challenges in writing the book. I tried different approaches. My husband is an engineer, and he gave me suggestions that I wish I’d listened to: Why don’t you write out your whole personal story and then figure out how to graft the two together? I said no, I don’t want to spend as much time on the personal story. I didn’t want the memoir to be the backbone of the story.


Then my editor said it was okay to go back in time—but that I needed one timeline. We discussed the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which goes back and forth, but one thread is solely in chronological order.


In my book, each chapter is bookended by my personal story, which is chronological. It’s a touchstone for the reader to land on.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I like the title very much. It’s a title I championed with my publisher. "Wired for Music" says neuroscience without having that word in the title. Our brain has electrical activity, and wiring speaks to that, and also to strings on an instrument. Wired also means excited.


I also wanted it to convey the age-old wiring for music that may have been in the Paleolithic times; it’s something innate. I wanted people to think of themselves that way.


Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?


A: The book is deeply researched. A lot of things surprised me. I did five or six times the amount of research that’s actually in the book.


It started as a Ph.D. thesis topic. I had the idea of studying how modern neuroscience was validating age-old uses of music. I was accepted into a program, but realized as a journalist that few people would read the thesis. I wanted to explore the idea in book form.

The book evolved—it started as ethnomusicology, but that would be difficult to graft onto Western medical concepts. I realized as I was doing the ethnomusicology research that I didn’t want to be speaking for Indigenous cultures.


I was surprised by the depth of study that had already been done on music and the brain. Most people know music affects mood, but I was surprised by the dozens of studies done on acute anxiety and music. And another part that surprised me was just how ancient the beginnings of our capacity for music really were.


Q: Are you working on another book?


A: It’s a bit like you’ve just given birth to your first child and people are saying, what about number two? You’re still coming to terms with its existence in the world! I have an inkling in mind for a follow-up book, but I’m not trying to conceive yet!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I just want people to know that the feeling of being tone-deaf or not able to carry a tune is largely cultural. It’s quite sad that we have an idea that we are unmusical. When scientists look at the capacity to perceive music, only 2 percent have amusia. But in Western culture, 20 percent consider themselves unmusical. This gap is cultural. If you’re told, Don’t sing, the shame can turn you off music for life. Other cultures don’t do that.


Another message is that if you feel music is something other people can do but you can’t, there are tone-deaf choirs and teachers who specialize in teaching adults an instrument. Getting started at any age can bring great joy to your life.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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