Wired for sound

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 17, 2002

There was only a matter of time before researchers found that area of the brain chiefly responsible for music and memory: the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, which is just behind your forehead and, I’ll wager, a component for hearing in stereo.

According to a story last week from the Associated Press, a study was done at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Eight musicians were wired to see what part of their noggin lights up on fancy equipment as certain music was played in different ways. This was not a matter to see if taste was involved (Celine Dion versus Ella Fitzgerald or Bach versus The Beach Boys – they’re all good), but how our brain records a melody and, more importantly, this link to our emotions. If you want to know more about this research, please go to www.sciencemag.org.

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Apropos this topic to the Christmas season, I would be interested to know if fellow columnists, such as Florence Arena, recall a holiday song that defines the time for them. Could it be carolers crooning &uot;White Christmas&uot;? Maybe the Mormon Tabernacle Choir proclaiming &uot;Joy to the World&uot;? Or might it be Alvin and The Chipmunks squeaking &uot;Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer&uot;?

That last one ought to be mine. On rare occasions my parents will remind me that as a child I played the cartoon characters’ records over and over and over and over and over…and over. Even then I had musical appreciation.

More importantly, what about you? Is there a Christmas classic or new tune that sums up the reason of the season? Please let me know by Sunday and I’ll be glad to print your responses in my column for next Tuesday. Send them by mail to my attention at Suffolk News-Herald, 130 S. Saratoga St., Suffolk, Va. 23434; fax at 539-8804; or e-mail: stephen.cowles@suffolknewsherald.com

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By the time you read this, I’ll most likely be taking a day off for praying, meditating and intensely rereading &uot;The Two Towers&uot; by J.R.R. Tolkien, all in preparation for the midnight preview of the movie. Thanks to generous Hampton friends Howard and George, I’ll be among the faithful as we watch one man’s imagination brought to film’s reality.

As with any movie, music is a crucial feature that underscores a character, action or moment. You might not even recall the story, but the music may remain. Too often this device is improperly (or deviously) used; a thousand violins swell at the moment the heroine and hero are reunited, or French horns herald an antagonist’s presence.

Speaking of guile, the use of holiday music at shopping malls can be solved in the following ways: First, don’t go. Second, if you must shop there, be resolute in staying within a list and budget; Third, wear foam earplugs or your own earphones with music contrary to cheer and sentiment. Using such methods may prevent you from singing the blues come January.

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On a lighter note and in keeping with the column’s theme, please allow me to suggest a Christmas gift.

As I write these words, the Virginia Chorale is performing through my earphones &uot;A Hymn to the Virgin&uot; by 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten. This is from its a cappella Christmas album, &uot;Heavenly Light.&uot; You won’t find contemporary tunes, but I’ll stake my reputation for good taste you’ll appreciate &uot;Coventry Carol,&uot; &uot;Go Tell it on the Mountain,&uot; &uot;Silent Night&uot; (sung in German) and &uot;In Paradisum.&uot; The latter is technically not a holiday song, but its beauty is inspirational and unforgettable. Those listeners who were with me a few years ago at this live recording will testify.

Call 627-8375 or go to www.vachorale.com to find out more. Tell the Chorale I sent you.

Stephen H. Cowles is the managing editor and a regular columnist for the Suffolk News-Herald. He rarely needs to listen to Alvin and The Chipmunks as they are already permanently living in his rostromedial prefrontal cortex.