IMG_5225Edensor Day has finally arrived.  Just two months ago, the residents of the bijou Derbyshire Village, where I live, emerged from hibernation and converted their gardens into a collective floral spectacle. Then, last Saturday, they opened them to the public, while on the green, all the accoutrements of a village fete and gala sprang up: stalls selling plants, bric-a-brac and books, vintage cars, a steel band, Morris Dancers, hog roast, raffle and barrel organ.  People paid £5 a ticket to enter and all funds were in the aid of this year’s charities: Dementia UK, Leukaemia and the never-ending Church Roof fund. 

Edensor appears in the Domesday Book as a small hamlet on the road from Matlock to Carver and Bakewell.  But after the big house was built in 1699, successive Dukes of Devonshire complained that the straggle of rude dwellings spoiled their view of the deer park, so in 1835, the 6th Duke and his general factotum, Joseph Paxton, demolished it and commissioned another village of the same name out of sight of his palace behind the Tumps.  According to social history, the Duke asked Paxton to obtain a selection of architect’s drawings. These included Italianate villas, Swiss chalets, gingerbread cottages and fortified houses with battlements and turrets. All the buildings were of a different style.  So in a confusion of indecision, His Grace proclaimed, ‘I’ll have one of each’.  And so it was: the dwellings of Edensor resemble a collection of film sets, but that contributes to the charm of the village. Nevertheless, Nikolaus Pevsner, the author of the compendious ‘Buildings of England’, was scathing about what he regarded as its inauthenticity. 

As a resident of 10 years, I am still regarded as an incomer, but in a gesture of solidarity to the community, I watered my flowers, fed the honeysuckle, and tidied the weeds from the front yard.   But I am no gardener. The biggest thing growing in my garden is the scaffolding they put up three months ago to replace my chimney that was in danger of blowing down. I am much better on biscuits and books that I ever was with plants and flowers.  So I erected two large tables outside under the scaffold, and filled them with some of my less cherished books, while on a separate table, I installed a Winchester flask of elderflower cordial and two cake stands of my own home made ricorelli biscuits.  I then made myself a cup of coffee and sat down and awaited the crowds. 

It is so poignant to sell my books, even for charity. They are like old friends. I can remember where I was when I first read them, where my mind travelled, what was important back then.  But my tiny cottage is groaning under the weight of novels, reference books on physiology, natural history, geology, environmental studies, medicine, psychoanalysis, biography and lots of poetry – though, if there’s one category I can’t get rid of, it’s the poetry books. 

It could not last. The long, hot spell of weather we had enjoyed from early May had to break some time. I had not long set up my stall when it started to rain.  I put both tables together under a large green parasol and rearranged my books where they might stay dry, then just as Lord Burlington, the scion of Chatsworth, drove through the village gate with his wife and young family, the rain stopped.  The ribbon was cut, posies exchanged  and Edensor Day was formally opened as, with a jingle of bells, a thump of the drum and img_5231.jpgthe bucolic strains of pipe and accordion, the Morris Dancers emerged in their black cloaks and breeches, multicoloured tassels, top hats with feathers and flowers, and faces painted in black, red and yellow like Red Indian medicine men. Back in the day on the borders between England and Wales, begging was unlawful, so destitute people disguised themselves and danced through the villages, extorting money by their frightening appearance.

From 11am until 4pm, a steady stream of people passed my stand and examined the books, though not all bought them.  Many said they already had a house full of books.  Others equivocated over the price, but I charged no more than £2 for most books, and all the money raised went to good causes.  The paradox is that had I charged more, people might have bought more; two pounds implies that they have no value.  I didn’t even have the heart to charge his Lordship more than £4 for the two art books he purchased, though his daughter politely requested a drink of cordial nervously holding out her 50p.  I didn’t sell as many biscuits as last year, probably because Tracey was selling cakes just next door, but despite the chilly weather, the Winchester of elderflower cordial was empty by the end of the day.  

At half past four, I had just started to pack up when, with exquisite timing and a loud rumble of thunder, heaven opened its sluices and cleared the streets and gardens.  It was a signal to join my neighbours in the courtyard for a beer and a laugh, and wait while the committee sat in conclave and counted the money.  The outcome was a record; over £12,000!




Some women just have it, that magic; the ability to evoke adoration in others.  Violet did.  How else could she make four men fall in love with her so deeply that they devoted their lives to her.  First there was Gordon, whom she married, then Bill, the love of her life and then Max and finally Dennis.  With interruptions, they all lived together in a ménage a cinq until separated by death.  Apparently, they didn’t seem  unhappy with the ‘arrangement’, which for a time scandalised the sensitivities of others. It seems that they got on famously and each in their unique way serviced Violet’s needs.   Gordon expressed fidelity, Bill romance, Max intellect and Dennis courage.  We don’t know how ‘intimate’ she was with her four men, though it was an agreement between Gordon and Violet that their marriage would be celibate, and there was no indication that she granted sexual favours to Max or to Dennis.  Max it seems was charmed by her direct, risqué conversation and fascinated by her unattainability.  It was only Bill, who might have enjoyed sexual privileges, though Violet’s skill at combining ice with fire and intimacy with distance might have encouraged an addiction without ever needing to consummate the relationship.   One suspects she was more than a little fearful of intimacy.  She had the flirt’s skill of focussing her attention on a person and making them feel that for that moment they mattered more than anyone else in the world.   

The fact that she was a celebrity helped, of course.  Violet Gordon Woodhouse was one of the greatest musicians of her generation,  a virtuoso on the keyboard, who did so much to recapture the unique qualities of the harpsichord and clavichord  and interpret the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and  Scarlatti.  People would be enraptured by her musicianship.  It was not only technically perfect, but she seemed to have a unique insight into the mind of the composer.  Hearing her play was a rare and exquisite emotional experience. She put the whole of herself into the  performance, expressing every nuance without sentimentality.  But she expended the same emotional intensity to her relationships as she did to her music.  Her vivacity could enthral her audience and leave them feeling  they had been touched by fairy dust.   Not only men but women too fell in love with her often for years.   

But it wasn’t her virtuosity that attracted people.  And it wasn’t her beauty either. She was as petite as a Dresden figurine and beautifully clothed, but she had a receding chin, large dark eyes  and a somewhat swarthy complexion inherited from her grandmother who was a Sumatran princess (although that was a closely guarded secret).  It was perhaps a certain imperiousness,  a sense of personality that made people feel they were in the audience of somebody special, a presence that demanded attention, devotion and adulation.  Her music was the expression of her personaility.  She was a Queen.  

These days we would recognize Violet as having a narcissistic personality.  Although she could be kind and compassionate when it suited her, it was her needs that always took precedence.  Violet did what she wanted, how she wanted and with whom she wanted.  She had known that she possessed a special gift from a very young age and expected to be spoilt.  She was the only one of her siblings who could charm their irascible father, and her musical gift meant, like other gifted musicians – Yehudi Menuhin comes to mind – she was set apart as the centre of attention at an early age.  Violet could always get her way though willpower and childlike magnetism.   Dorothy, her sister, was the sole repository of envy. 

But selfishness does not come without a dark side.  Violet could be autocratic and even vicious when people opposed her.  She tended to encourage the submissiveness in women she had despised in her mother and if she felt she was not being given the deference she deserved, she would create such a mood of disapproval that it would reduce those around her to a state of misery.  But she didn’t hold a grudge for long.  She always saw the best in people and had an impulsive, bubbly nature, a, provocative gaiety that was irresistible and tended to bring out the same in others.  She made people feel good – and if people feel good they tend to hang around.   She needed affirmation and she was clever enough to know how to get it and keep it. 

 Violet never had children, and could be criticised for not giving her ‘husbands’ the freedom to have families of their own.  One wonders what kind of men they were.  Some have even suggested they might have been gay, though there is no indication of that.  And they did not seem weak men.  Bill, Max and Dennis served with great bravery and distinction in the Great War, all three attaining the rank of Lt. Colonel.   No, the arrangement seemed to suit them.  And once Violet had decided she wanted something, she would not give it up.            

Violet Gordon Woodhouse was an expert. She knew how to get her needs met without compromising herself.  She had the brass neck to lead her life as she wished but still avoid the condemnation of society.  She had an imperiousness that would brook no opposition.  But as long as she got her own way, there was little malice in Violet and she gave more than she received.  She was one of these rare charismatic personalities who bring joy into people’s lives and leave the world a better place than they found it.      

As her biographer, Jessica Douglas-Home wrote,  ‘Life enhancing people are rarely perfect – their flaws are part of their vitality and their fascination. Violet possessed an exquisite selfishness, but despite her well-deserved reputation for generosity, friendship and warmth, she could also be cold and critical.  But those who loved her forgave her everything. 


Violet, the biography of Violet Gordon Woodhouse, was written be her niece, Jessica Douglas Home and published in 1996.  It’s a good read!   

She was devastated.   After all she had come through, how could the Gods allow it to happen?  Wasn’t she still grieving for her husband, Sychaeus, killed for his money by her own brother, Pygmalion.  Hadn’t she had to take the gold and leave her home in Phoenicia at the dead of night and set sail across a vast sea?   Hadn’t she by sheer force of character and against enormous local opposition, created Carthage on this Godforsaken African promontory and established herself as Queen?  That had all taken some doing.  And now, along comes this chancer, this loser from Troy who quite literally tears her life apart.  

Dido was clearly an inspiring young woman,  beautiful, energetic and possessed of a powerful charisma that could get her anything she wanted or so she thought.  And she wanted Aeneas.  He arrived with his tales of valour; the wooden horse, the defeat of Laocoon, the shipwreck.  And what’s more he came with a ship full of treasures he had secreted out of Troy.  Was it his fault that he had lost Troy?   Hadn’t he been tricked by the Achaeans?  Hadn’t he been betrayed by King Cinyrus of Cyprus who promised a fleet of fifty ships to raise the siege, but sent just one.   Dido was entranced by this warrior prince with his broad shoulders and barrel chest and commanding manner, enthralled by his stories.  What they could do together.  They would make Carthage impregnable, an empire to rival even that of ancient Troy.  Yes, he was on a mission to found a new empire in Italy, but surely he could see what an opportunity Carthage presented and wasn’t he in love with her?  

She had played it cautiously. She would not submit to him without ensuring his loyalty and support.  She was not sure how long she could hold out in Carthage alone.  Armies were gathering to attack her claim in North Africa.  She might have been able to maintain her hold on him, were it not for the weather.  They had been out hunting and were forced to take shelter together in a cave.  She called it their marriage cave, for in it, he pledged himself to her.  Her future looked wonderful.   But then he reminded her of his promise to set up a state in Italy and he proposed leaving before  the weather  turned bad, but he added, he would love her forever and perhaps she could come and join him. 

What a louse!  What a sneaking, conniving, cowardly weasel!  Dido was beside herself with rage.  Aeneas tried to appease her.  Perhaps he didn’t have to go just yet.  Perhaps the Gods would relent. 

You see, he always had the excuse of the Gods to fall back on.  Zeus had been importuned to assist Dido’s enemies in North Africa in their land claims on Carthage.  Ibarus, King of the Moors, was a son of Zeus and had been rejected by Dido. He prayed to his father, who sent Hermes to remind  Aeneas of his promise to go to Italy.  So Aeneas spread his arms and said sorry darling,  ‘Would you have me disobey the Gods?’   Oh he was in such a dreadful bind, especially as Hera and Aphrodite will telling him to stay.  What was he to do?   ‘Let Dido down and lose his one true love or disobey Zeus and be punished forever.’  Put like that there was only one decision.  He had to go, but perhaps, if their love meant everything she said it did, he could return.  Besides, didn’t she have all the Trojan treasures?  Didn’t that mean anything? 

Apparently not!  She had compromised herself.  In her reckless love affair, she had not only incurred the wrath of the surrounding nomad chieftains, but had also lost the support of her own Tyrians.  There was no way to turn, but her response was uncompromising.  ‘ Get on your boat, sailor! And don’t come back.  But you will pay for this for the rest of your life’   She was true to her word.  As soon as Aeneas galley rounded the cape, she fell on the point of his sword and threw herself on her funeral pyre.  Aeneas didn’t hear of it until he had reached Italy and established Rome.  There he descended to the underworld and met Dido, who was reunited with Sychaeus and refused to talk to him, but she continued to haunt his thoughts until the end of his days.  .      

This is one of great love stories of all time, rivalling Abelard and Heloise, Troilus and Cressida,  Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris,  Mark Anthony and Cleopatra and Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII.  It illustrates the dangerous and enduring power of love to transform or to devastate lives.  The Gods in this tale are really metaphors for emotion, there to symbolise forces of desire, anger, and duty.   The Gods battle in out in mortals whose souls are in conflict.  

So the Gods made you do it, Aeneas?  Baloney!  You wanted to go to Italy all along.  It was a challenge.  You’d lost Troy?  This was a chance to make up.  And although Dido was the woman of your dreams, your one true love, didn’t she come across a bit too strong.  She would  have your guts for a suspender belt if you didn’t do exactly as she ordered!  How would you cope with that?   

And what about you Dido?   Did the Gods make you give yourself to him?  No, you could see him slipping away and with that your toehold in Carthage.  So you decided to give him one night of magic that would ensnare him, bind him to you forever.  Oh yeah, that was Aphrodite’s work.  Convenient; only  it didn’t work.  It only served to unnerve him and made him more determined to do his duty.  He was but a man after all

So is this really the greatest love story of all time?  Or is it a tale of hubris and political power; the  risky deployment of romance and sex to achieve ambition?  Or is an example of the age old conflict between love and duty.   How often does love come along at the opportune time?  Can you always be so ruthless and single minded to give up all ties and responsibilities for what may be one great illusion?  Can faith and love move armies and mountains or are there always qualifications?   

Dido was devastated, but maybe not so much by loss, as by the thought that a bloody sailor from Turkey could treat her, Dido, Queen of Carthage, in such a manner.  But she would get her own back.  She would die on the point of his sword and he would never ever forget her.  Hell knows no fury like a Queen who is scorned and she would summon all the Gods in hell to enact it. 

Dido and Aeneas inspired some of the world’s greatest art; in England a play by Christopher Marlowe and an opera by Henry Purcell (1670).  Dido’s Lament in the last act is reputedly the greatest tune of the 17th century, simple in structure but containing sequences of chords that twist the heart strings like no other melody.  Dido ensured that she was never forgotten.

As I wrote in a previous blog (Inheritance, how we are carriers for our genes as well as our culture,  2nd January 2009) , human culture evolves by different mechanisms compared with biological evolution.  Cultural evolution conforms to the principles of development by use and disuse, laid down by the French soldier and biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who was commissioned  for valour on the battlefield when just 17 years of age.  So promotion ensured his own personal development in much the same way as, according to Lamarckism, the giraffes neck would grow longer to reach the leaves it feeds on.  And once a certain characteristic is established as useful within the culture, it tends to stay until modified or replaced or until a change in fashion or technology creates a new way of looking at things. 


The rate at which cultural evolution occurs differs according to the topic or aspect. In science, there are long periods of stability where nothing much changes. Most scientists like to study what is in fashion; what other scientists are doing.  They compete with each other top add a small brick to the edifice.  And when they can think of nothing else to do, they test what is already known by ever more rigorous means.  Then suddenly an Albert Einstein comes along or an Alexander Fleming makes a breakthrough that opens up a new channel of enquiry, a rich vein that may lead to a whole new way of seeing things.      


Science favours the prepared mind.  Something usually occurs to anticipate discovery; a serendipitous observation, a discovery in another field, a new way of thinking or an advance in technology, such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. Then, rather like the change in climate that propelled tool-using  humanoid bipeds out of the forest onto the savannah, the scene is set for rapid evolution of ideas.   


Art is more idiosyncratic. Artists are influenced by each other but most try not to copy each other.  They are fiercely individual and are constantly looking for original ways of seeing and expressing things.  It’s probably no coincidence that political radicals of the nineteen seventies and eighties had often been to art colleges.  An advance in technology, a new medium, may provoke a flurry of invention as each artist uses it to develop their own creative opportunities, but as soon as they are successful, an artist’s style tends to become fixed to fit with cultural expectations they have created.  They become trapped by the success of their retrospectives.     


Literature changes more slowly, less radically.  For many years, good prose and poetry had to conform to rules of syntax and grammar as well as a certain accepted rhythm and music. Change could only take place within that container. Now, with the advent of electronic communication, the medium is changing.   New forms are being introduced with bewildering frequency and with these, new opportunities of expression.        


Music and the theatre, the performing arts, are also somewhat split.  There is an increasing amount of experimental, avant garde theatre, some radical new styles of composition, innovations in dance. But most theatre and music performance is traditional, a re-working of the classics. The content is fixed. All that can change is the style and interpretation.  That depends on the director, the actors and the musicians.     


Musical performance affects the way the sounds are expressed, the emphasis, amplitude, rate, timbre and tone.  Performers can take a certain amount of liberty with the composition; a different combination of instruments can be used for example, whole sections may be omitted. But performance is more than innovation and artistry. It is competitive in a similar manner as ice dancing, synchronised swimming or gymnastics. The bar gets raised all the time, sounds get crisper and clearer, the fingering more complex and technology creates new opportunities.  The performance has to keep pace with and in most cases exceed the demands of increasingly discerning and critical audiences.  Musicians often regard the concert as blood sport. The audience is looking for mistakes and the penalty for failure is death.


Nevertheless, performance style can only change within the limits of what is acceptable.  Evolution in this context occurs by listening to others, adopting certain nuances, rejecting others, practicing, performing, obtaining feedback and readjustment, a gradual remodelling that accommodates current cultural demands. For example, high fidelity recordings have created a desire for crisp, clean sounds that can be amplified and adjusted, whereas in the past a soloist or singer would need to hold their own against the orchestra with prodigious amplitude and the elaborate use of vibrato and arpeggio.  Musicians adopt what musicologist, Daniel Leech-Wilson called ‘optimal foraging principles’, which explains, he asserted, why prima donnas have declined in favour of opera singers who can work well with others in a team.  Nevertheless, musicians, like artists, have to develop their own style as they learn, change and make it their own.  In that respect, performance is rather like practicing psychotherapy or what used to be called ‘the art of medicine’.  Any innovation of the culture of performance has to fit current norms but add something fresh, like Catrin Finch’s recent rearrangement of The Goldberg Variations for the harp (see my recent blog, entitled, ‘What is Music For?’ 26th February, 2009). .


Cultural evolution has parallels in biological evolution. In stable, traditional societies, biological as well as cultural evolution occurs very slowly, if at all, by small adaptations.  Genes that favour overconsumption may well be weeded out, but other ‘genetic’ diseases may increase with effective treatment.  As societies become more cosmopolitan, the blending of racial characteristic creates more adaptability to change, both in a biological and cultural sense.  


It is only when humanity is decimated by a change in the environment, a deterioration in the climate so catastrophic, an infection so devastating, that survivors will create a new race with particular characteristics of resistance. This might be compared with exposure of populations to a completely new way of perceiving the world, a cultural revolution.  Only those, who are able to adapt their thinking and behaviour, will be able to keep up.   So as the current financial crisis continues to bite, only those who have a clear understanding of what is happening, will be able to use it to their advantage.    


And not all biological evolution is Darwinian.  A new symbiotic relationship that confers a distinct advantage on both species; a beneficial bacterium in the human colon, the association of soil fungi with tree roots, a virus that gets incorporated into the human genetic apparatus; these all behave in a Lamarkian manner and are taken up at the rate of cultural evolution.  Nothing is absolute. This begs the question, ‘for cultural change to survive from generation to generation, how much of it is transmitted according to natural selection.’  At one time in our history, a gene encoding for musicality or a surrogate for it, might have conferred a selective advantage in terms of promoting societies.  But that’s for another day.



Human existence is nothing is not meaningful.  The brain works in metaphor and meaning.  We surround ourselves with symbols that represent aspects of our identity.   We use mental imagery to make sense of our experience through the creation of internal objects, psychological representations that flesh out our thoughts.


And we project those thoughts, those representations, onto other people, experiences, and objects that inhabit our subjective world, influencing what we see in them, how we interpret what happens.  The person we fall in love with embodies the qualities of an idealised parent.  They have to. We all need our delusions and imaginings. They comfort us. When we discover the reality, that they are themselves after all and some of their personal habits are – well, not as we would like, it can be quite devastating.        


Inhabiting a world of meanings is like carrying our own personal television in our heads, a theatre of the mind seen through the camera of our mind and created in our own image from everything that has ever happened to us.    


The arts give voice and form to our representations.  Music can be heroic, stirring, happy, loving, sad.  It encourages personal association and can amplify it and come to represent it.  It is such a powerful emotional amplifier. 


And look at the painting and sculpture; the comforting interiors of Wilhelm Hammershoi,  the womb like reds of Mark Rothko, the painful ruminations of Louis Bourgeois.  These are all representations of the issues that preoccupied the artists.    


Language is an abstraction, a way of conveying meaning through an understood code, a metaphorical communication.  This reaches its most sophisticated and eloquent in poetry.     


But if this is all part of the theatre of our mind,  it is an interactive theatre.  If we are to remain healthy, our interpretations have to change, to adapt, when events shatter the image. If they don’t, then we cannot live with ourselves.  Instead we exist in a state of dissonance and may only find meaning in illness.  The story has to change and adapt if we are to remain healthy in mind, body and spirit.  This is what is meant by Narrative Therapy (see my blog on Narrative based therapy; changing morbid life scripts, 19th September 2008).  


But what are these representations there for?  Why do we need them?  TS Eliot once remarked that ‘mankind cannot tolerate too much reality.’   So do we use symbols to distance ourselves from intolerable realities, that we really are all alone in the world and there are forces out there that want to destroy us? 


Dr Kenneth Wright, psychoanalyst and author, who spoke at The Eye and Mind Society last week, thought so. ‘Our symbols exist to help us cope with separation and live an independant life. We cannot do that unless we can build a representation of what it is we separate from’.  This allows us to remain connected to the objects that give us security even if they are in mental cyberspace. As I explained in last week’s blog, Lean on Me (18th February), the ability to be independent and go it alone depends on the presence of a supportive partner. It is really a state of mature interdependence. This can still be the case even though they are thousands of miles away, if we have not seen them for years and even if they are dead.  As long as we know that somebody loves us, then we can do anything.  But how do we learn to be without the one we need but still have them? 


Infants use substitutes, bits of blanket, smiling teddy bears, their thumbs – transitional objects that represent a continued connection with their mother’s face and body and are used as comforters.  Transitional objects are a step on the way to internal or mental objects. 


Toddlers learn to play quite happily as long as they know their mother is there or will return very soon.  They carry the image of the consistent mother who will always be there if they need her and that gives them the confidence to play, to explore their environment.  As they grow and the distance and time of separation increase, they carry a mental resonance of the soothing sound of her voice, an image of her smiling face in our mind’s eye.  The face is particularly important.  Humans have the most expressive face of any animal.  It conveys feeling through a visual connection.  A smile makes all of us feel good .  It is immensely reassuring.  A frown is frightening.  

The older child learns to work in metaphor.  They move from a world of real things to abstract images, soothing music, soft contours, comforting colours and images, that may still represent aspects of their mother. These are all ways of creating a reassuring world.  And when adolescents leave home, they may carry an impression of home and mother which they then project into their chosen partner with whom they re-establish a much earlier intimacy.   


But symbols do not just represent home and security, they represent other aspects of our lives as well; the things we are afraid of, that make us angry.   They recreate our good objects, bad objects, guilty objects and objects we feel ambivalent about.  Good representations reassure us that we are loved.  They are a way of possessing but not possessing.  Bad representations provides the means of taming the dangers of life.  They separate us from a reality we can’t control and give us a virtual mastery, which can take away the fear. ‘You’re never alone with a bad object.’   


Symbols are rather like spirits.  We see them in our minds eye and they bother us.  


‘As I was going up the stairs,

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

I wish that man would go away.’ 


Tribes in some regions of central Africa live in the world of spirits all the time, so when somebody returns to the tribe after many years absence, they throw sand at him just to check he is real.  Some of us do something similar for the people we don’t quite trust. We test them out.  Is this person for real?  Will they be there for us?


Young children and many older ones inhabit a split world of all or nothing, good or bad, which they try to control through magic and superstition.  It takes time, training and experience before they acquire a more balanced approach and develop more ambivalent but realistic representations.   


Some people find it difficult to make mental representations.  They do not trust their mental images.  They cannot think about the meaning of things.  They have to know the facts. Perhaps for them, separation has been too sudden and they need to hold on to reality. 


But for the majority, it’s our accumulation of our memories and meanings that build up our identity.  How we cope depends on the nature of our objects. If they are good, we can go out into the world with confidence. If, however we surround ourselves with negative representations, then life is a torment, for which the only relief is the support of our friends.

No-one ever died for lack of music, but nevertheless for many people a life without music would hardly be worth living.  No human culture is without music. Bone flutes have even been found in neolithic burial mounds. But what is music?  What is it for?


These were the questions posed by Dr Jason Warren, Consultant Neurologist at Queen Square, at last Monday’s meeting on Music and the Mind at The Royal College of Physicians at Regent’s Park.  


So is music a language, a mating display, a cultural artefact necessary for social cohesion or is it, or is it as the psychologist, Steven Pinker, proposes just auditory cheesecake, there for entertainment and serving no useful function? 


Musical sounds may well be a kind of proto-language, but music doesn’t tell a story, convey facts or help us to understand things more clearly. Jason Warren proposed that music and language might have separated very early in human evolution and ontogeny.  Call sounds are both semantic and emotional; the semantic aspects developed into the symbolic code we call language (which nevertheless has a musical cadence), while the emotional elements became music, which has its unique facility to encode feeling. 


So music, as musicologist, Daniel Leech-Wilson suggested, is perhaps best understood as emotional experience.  It changes our mood.  It becomes our mood.  Music can be exciting, depressing, angry, sad, frightening, heroic, stirring.  And yet it leaves a significant minority of the population, the tone deaf, stone cold.  This begs the question as to whether tone deafness is associated with a deficiency of emotional experience.   


When Catrin Finch played her new arrangement of The Goldberg Variations for the harp at the Royal Academy of Music last Sunday, the tumbling notes, the plangent chords, left me heartbroken.  I sat with my eyes closed throughout the performance, tears coursing down my cheeks.  No tone deafness there, I guess.     


Others would have experienced it very differently.  But that’s the thing about music. Although it can enable social cohesion – think of hymns, anthems, folk music, it nevertheless provides an intensely personal fulfilment. It affords people their own emotional experience without interference from each another. We all attach our own individual meaning to music. We all have special tunes, songs of particular emotional significance.  Perhaps it was the song that was playing when we met our beloved for the first time. Or perhaps it was just the popular music of our youth that rekindles nostalgia.  


Recent discoveries in neuroscience underscore the relationship between music and emotion. Brain scans have shown that the more primitive emotional areas of the brain, the amygdala, insula, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, become active when music is played.  And in his new book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks described a patient who was struck by lightning and some 7 weeks later developed an obsession with music that was accompanied by an increased spirituality and emotionality.  Music and an altered emotional state can be part of temporal lobe epilepsy; often it is the emotional association with the music that seems to be important in bringing on the seizure.  


Indeed, I might suggest that music is so much a part of emotional experience that in a culture that suppresses strong emotion, music has been adopted as an acceptable vehicle for emotional release. Think of its important role in religious ceremonies, the passions released at pop concerts, even the importance of music as a promoter of love making.  At the college conference, one elderly member was so inspired by the topic as to shock his dignified and eminent colleagues with the pieces of music he and his wife, who was looking distinctly embarrassed, liked to make love to.  I had not witnessed such enthusiasm since a very senior professor demonstrated the action of the prototype of Viagra to the council of the Edinburgh College and their ladies.        


But I am digressing.  What is it that moves us with music?   Is it its basic physical properties; the loudness, rhythm, pitch, timbre, the mathematical relations between the notes, or their combination that produces certain chords or melodies?  It is probably all of these.  Loud music stirs and excites.  Soft music makes us reflective.  It is probably no coincidence that the beat of our music matches the rate of our heart or the rhythm of our walking.  Speed it up and it is more exciting.  Slow it down and it is sad or restful.  Music played in a major key tends to be perceived as cheerful whereas when played in a minor key, it tends to be melancholic, but there are numerous exceptions.  The observation that people from musical cultures with different notations don’t perceive that distinction suggests that it is learned.  Melodies stir memories, they ‘amp’ up the hippocampus, a key brain structure for processing emotional memory.  Music has emotional associations.   Isabelle Peretz claims that emotional tension and release flow from the way our learned expectations of patterns of music are manipulated, violated  and postponed. In other words, much depends on the performance.  


Music enhances the meaning and impact of poetry.  Two years ago,  I went to hear Carol Ann Duffy read poems from her collection called Rapture.  They were then put to music and sung by the jazz singer, Eliana Tomkin.  Duffy’s flat poetic reading did not engage my emotions, but Tomkin made the words soar.  Duffy writes such excellent poetry – the combination was magic.  It is a pity that so many bad lyrics have been rendered  memorable by setting them to wonderful tunes.


Music is also therapy.  It encourages movement and thinking.  It can bring the institutionalised elderly back to life. It gives the sick hope, the mentally impaired meaning.  Indeed people with learning difficulties can have unusual musical appreciation and talent.       


Derek Paravacini was just over a pound in weight when he was born premature.  He was not expected to survive.  He did, but with severe learning difficulties.  Not only that treatment with oxygen had destroyed his retina and he was completely blind.  Nevertheless by chance, he was found to have a prodigious musical talent, which has been enabled through his long relationship with his friend and mentor, Professor Adam Ockleford. 


At last Saturday’s recital, given to the Eye and Mind Society, Derek demonstrated not only his amazing virtuosity on the keyboard but also his incredible memory for music.  He only needs to hear a piece once and he will reproduce it, note perfect.  He can also perform complex pieces that he has not played for years. 


Derek is a musical savant.  It is as if, deprived of other effective means, it is music that allows him to communicate, to link emotionally with others, to have a meaningful life. 


Auditory cheesecake?  Are you tone deaf, Mr Pinker?  Music is not just an additional dessert in the meal of life, it is the flavours, the textures that enrich our repast and make a veritable banquet out of breakfast.