This Is a Brain On Music

This Is a Brain On Music

In many ways, writing music is very much like speaking a foreign language.

Written By

Alexandra Gardner

Brain Diagram

My interest in language and linguistics achieved laser focus a few years ago while I was living in Barcelona and learning Spanish (actually the locals would insist on Castilian) “on the job,” so to speak. It was extremely interesting to learn (or rather, improve to fluency) a foreign language as an adult, well past the “prime time” childhood years when language attainment happens more simply and fluidly. (Aside: parents, one of the best things you can possibly do for your child is to raise her or him in a bilingual environment.) Even though I always did well in language classes in school, I had to work at this. Never will I forget the day that a stranger on the street stopped me to ask a question, and I answered back without even thinking about the words. Progress!

One benefit of going through these motions as an adult was having a high degree of self-awareness of the process as I experienced it. For instance, I discovered that the “Foreign Language Department” of my brain is not connected to the “Native (English) Language Department.” Whenever I had trouble thinking of a particular word in Spanish, an alternative would pop into my head, never in English, but rather in Italian or German, even though I speak only a little bit of each. Similarly, at a certain time in the evenings, especially after a long day of much talking (People in Spain talk a lot. A LOT.), my “Foreign Language Department” would literally shut down, and I could barely muster even English words. The most interesting side effect of these adventures in foreign language acquisition occurred on days when I was heavily steeped in composing. If interrupted from working on a musical project—such as if someone were to come to the door—I was barely able to summon any Spanish language at all! It would take everything I had just to give a basic response to whatever was needed. Thank goodness for friendly and patient neighbors.

Over the past few weeks, I have been experiencing similar conflicts between my internal “Music Department” and my “Creative Writing (of words) Department.” That is, the more time I am spending in the thick of an orchestra piece, the more challenging it has become to write words. It’s as if all the blood flow to my brain is being diverted to the part that deals with musical language (and I would argue that learning to write music is very much like learning a foreign language), leaving only a tiny trickle going to the prose section. Although I have experienced this before, it is hitting me with greater force this time around, presumably because this is by far the largest composition I’ve written to date. It’s not exactly writer’s block, because I’ve got about four blog posts in various states of development; interesting topics, but the sentences are just not gelling quite right.

With that in mind, I’m taking a breather from these weekly blog posts—both in order to devote more time to behind-the-scenes NewMusicBox activities, and to conserve energy that will help me complete this musical project, which is so close to done I can taste it. If something comes up that wants/needs writing about, I will most certainly make that happen. Thanks, and see you again soon!