“If music be the food of love,” Duke Orsino of Illyria had famously urged, “play on.” But music, it now appears, is much more than the food of love. It is, indeed, the food of life — thus spake the voice of 21st-century science recently. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association noted a remarkable sharpening of responses in children who are encouraged to pursue some form of musical activity from the earliest years. If the cognitive benefits of musical education in children were apparent from earlier studies, the latest research extended the thesis by relating musical aptitude to chances of having a healthier life in old age. So those who have learnt music from a tender age, and kept at it for a long time, are less likely to succumb to diseases of the nervous system. They do not have to be a Mozart or a Beethoven, or a concert pianist of middling worth, not even a Sunday violinist, to slip the clutches of debilitating maladies. They may have given up music-making years before the onset of old age, but their early exposure to, and prolonged association with, music are guarantees enough to enhanced chances of enjoying healthier twilight years.
These conclusions are neither sensational nor empirically fool-proof, as they are based on a ridiculously tiny sample. But still, the palliative power of music, and its mysterious but enduring appeal in the animal kingdom, are well-known truths. Music always exerts some sort of an influence on all creatures, great and small. A simple tune can trigger the oddest memories — of love, hate, joy or despair. Nietzsche believed that human beings listen to music with their muscles. And indeed, the world has witnessed hardcore musicophiliacs weep with emotion, moan with pleasure, burst out into hysterical laughter or go totally berserk during the high noon of rock ’n roll. A haunting melody has acted like the cupid’s arrow or inspired the blackest melancholia. Birds and bees have cooed to their kind in the sweetest of lilts, cats and dogs have sung praises to moonlit nights with full-throated ease, and cicadas have chirped their ditties to darkness. There is really no denying the pleasures and powers of creating music, whatever be the kind.
Yet what will happen if music education is turned into a form of investment, out of a purely selfish interest in having a better deal when one is 64? Such an attitude has potentially disastrous implications for teachers of music, who may be saddled with dozens of tone-deaf students by well-meaning parents eager to ensure a better future for their offspring. And that will be just as bad for children who have no interest in, or talent for, music. Then, hypermusicality has its own perils as well. As the writer-physician, Oliver Sacks, has pointed out, compulsive humming of catchy tunes can lead to hallucinations. Shakespeare’s duke guessed as much when he asked for an “excess” of music, “that, surfeiting,/ The appetite may sicken and so die.”