The Strings of My Heart

Joni Mitchell, Megadeth, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and me.

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

I was 12 years old when my big sister and my mom came to blows over Joni Mitchell. We were watching one of Mitchell’s first TV appearances in the States. Nan, who was 15, wanted very badly to see her musical idol — badly enough that she was enduring our company in the living room, in front of our black-and-white Zenith. Mitchell hadn’t gotten three bars into whatever song she was singing when Mom and I and my little sister started to giggle: at her big buckteeth, her strange diction, her peculiar solemnity. Nan was irate. “She’s a great artist!” she screamed at us, spittle flying from her mouth, and spun around to run up the stairs to her room.

“We’re only watching this because you wanted to! Get back here, young lady!” my mom shouted, grabbing Nan’s arm as she passed. The next thing I knew, they were whaling away at one another, landing ineffectual blows among the angry words and tears.

That was when I decided: I never wanted to like any music that would cause my mom to take a whack at me.

I stayed true to my resolution. The first record I ever bought was by Bobby Sherman. I grew up happily bopping along to cheesy Top 40 hits. Even today, my musical taste is that of your typical 13-year-old girl. I adore Taylor Swift. I love One Direction. Rihanna is about as edgy as I get.

That means my two kids were raised on a steady diet of Goo Goo Dolls and Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. Modern parents drive their kids everywhere, and I was no exception. On the way to and from school, Scouts, sports, their grandparents’ houses, birthday parties, my daughter Marcy and her little brother Jake were steeped in pop stew. Marcy was especially fond of “Closing Time” by Semisonic when she was young.

She still is.

It’s not surprising. Scientists say we grow up liking the music we hear most often; one theory to explain musical preference is that our brains create “templates” for different styles of music, and the neural connections that form these templates deepen with repeated hearings. Functional MRI scans show that when you listen to music that’s similar to the templates of other music you like, your brain releases dopamine, the same “pleasure chemical” it gives off when you have sex or take heroin or cocaine. As Steven Kreinberg, an associate music professor at Temple’s Boyer College of Music and Dance, put it when I visited his campus office, “It really does come down to sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.”

If you steal a baby in Mumbai and bring it up in Philly, that baby will grow up liking the Roots, not Indian raga. “Music is like language,” Kreinberg says. “You’re born able to learn any language in the world, and you filter out what you don’t need.” Though we like to say music is universal, the truth is that when we hear songs from outside our culture, we don’t have the same emotional response to them that native listeners do, because we don’t have templates for them. We lack an aesthetic understanding of how they’re put together, what a crescendo or tremolo or diminuendo is supposed to signify, whether we should laugh or cry.

When we do have an emotional response to music, though, it can be powerful. In an article for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern explains why the music from our teen years tends to mean so much to us throughout our lives:

Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development — and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones.

These are the years when we form our identity, and music is a part of that. Nan still loves Joni Mitchell. I can still sing the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” in its entirety. Sometimes music binds us together. Sometimes it splits a family apart.

MARCY GREW UP miming my mainstream taste; she loved the Spice Girls, Mariah Carey, the theme songs from Disney movies. Her teen years were relatively easy, and I’m convinced a lot of that was because of our musical bond. No matter how tense things got, if you put the two of us in the car and Q102 on the radio, we were cool.

Not Jake.

He hated the music we listened to. At age 12 he clapped on headphones, and he wore them for the next 10 years.

Steve Kreinberg teaches a class at Temple in which, in the interests of expanding students’ templates, he takes them to musical experiences they’ve never before been exposed to: a cappella concerts at the Cathedral Basilica, string quartet performances at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the opera, the Orchestra. When he asks them afterward for their reactions, they frequently report their surprise at how quiet the music is. He blames that on headphones. “Young people are so used to hearing highly amplified music that ambient music sounds soft to them,” he says. “I worry about us creating a generation with damaged hearing.”

I worried about that with Jake. But mostly I worried because with him, music wasn’t a bridge between us. It was an abyss that highlighted his utter disdain for my bubblegum taste. When he started to drive and borrowed my car, he’d leave the radio tuned (deafeningly) to angry-young-man stations playing songs by bands with names like Anthrax and Megadeth and Slayer. If, God forbid, we were in the car together and I was driving, the headphones went on. I didn’t expect him to appreciate Daughtry or Miley Cyrus, but couldn’t we compromise?

He wore those headphones a lot. He wore them when he worked at Wawa, and in the locker room as he geared himself up for football games. He wore them at school when he was practicing for the SATs, when he did his homework in the living room, for the hours a day that he played video games. I came to see them as an affront: They were an easy way for him to close me off, separate us even when we were together, remind me that he couldn’t bear to have his eardrums set in motion by the same air that moved mine. We spent the better part of a decade shouting at one another: I at him because he had his headphones on, he at me because why was I shouting at him?

THE GROOVES THAT SONGS lay down in our brains are deep. In the dementia that can accompany old age, music is one of the last things to go. Long after an Alzheimer’s patient has ceased to recognize her own children or spouse, she can often recall with perfect clarity the songs she heard when she was young. How many symbols from the periodic table of elements can you remember? Not many, I bet — and you had to memorize them. Now think of how many songs you know by heart when you never even tried.

There’s a film by Elena Mannes called The Music Instinct: Science & Song — you can watch it on YouTube — that examines the strange affinity between our minds and music. Archaeologists have found flutes made from ivory and bone that are 42,000 years old — a smidgen older than the earliest known paintings. Music was our companion when we were still living in caves — which, the film notes, make an ideal setting for acoustic performances.

Why music? That’s a bit of a mystery. What evolutionary advantage could our cultural fixation with Kanye and Questlove and Gaga have provided? Darwin thought music must have evolved as a sexual display, like the impala’s horns or a peacock’s tail. It’s fun to think of, say, Bach’s works as that tail’s equivalent, overelaborated to the point of ridiculousness but still so beautiful. An Australian philosopher named Kim Sterelny has argued that musical ability may have signaled a parental investment in learned cultural behavior, tipping suitors off to mates inclined to make a similar investment in their own offspring. The Music Instinct postulates that music grew out of an ancient communication system that involved both gesture — dance — and sound, and that it ultimately served to build group cohesion by aligning our collective brain states toward joy or fury or wonder. Anyone who’s ever sung in a choir or played in an orchestra knows that sense you have of losing yourself in something larger, something beautiful and grand. The ability to mastermind that — to conjure it in a cave filled with flickering firelight — would have conferred immense power.

MY FATHER LOVED TO SING. He had a fine baritone voice, and he used it liberally, across an enormous repertoire. After my mom died, he lived alone for decades, much of which he spent singing along to records on the stereo: Sinatra, opera, old World War Isongs, Gilbert and Sullivan, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Late in his life, he confessed to me, haltingly, that he was hearing singing even when the stereo wasn’t playing. Specifically, he was hearing men’s voices, raised in harmony inside his head. He was afraid the voices meant he was going mad.

After a little online research, I was able to reassure him: He wasn’t crazy. He had something called musical ear syndrome, a form of auditory hallucination that affects the deaf, which he pretty much was by that point. It turns out that the mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Since Pop’s eardrums were no longer taking in sounds, his brain was generating them from memory, to fill the emptiness. And it was doing so with the music he loved best: strong male voices singing in harmony.

I told him he might as well sing along.

JAKE GOES TO COLLEGE now, in a charming little town in upstate New York. It’s four hours away. There’s no public transportation that’s at all convenient, and he doesn’t have a car. So for the past few years, I’ve been driving up to get him for holidays and breaks and then driving him back again. At first it seemed like a chore, but then I realized: It was the most time we’d spent together, one on one, since I was breastfeeding him.

For a while, he wore the headphones. But even the angriest young men eventually age out of defiance. These days, we don’t talk a lot when we’re driving. We talk some. And we listen to the radio. Winding our way up the Northeast Extension, we go in and out of reach of stations. By now we know the ones that trick you into thinking they’re rock when they’re really Jesus music, and that bleak stretch past Scranton where nothing comes in except country for the longest time.

I like country music. (It’s just pop with a twang.) Jake doesn’t.

We’ve turned the search feature on the car radio into a game, listening to those three-second snippets as they slide by and deciding whether or not to hit the button to stay there. It amazes me how quickly my mind recognizes — and rejects — anything by Billy Joel. But even more amazing are the songs for which Jake hits the button. Oh, sure, he still stops for Tom Petty. But on our latest trip, he also chose to stick with Heart’s “Barracuda,” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” and A-ha’s “Take On Me,” and — wonder of wonders! — Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel.” “What?” he said when that choice made me look at him sidelong. “I don’t hate all country. I just hate bad country.” And he sang along.

It turns out Steve Kreinberg’s right. Underneath those headphones, Jake’s been listening to all the same music I like.

The Music Instinct talks about string theory, the idea that the fundamental constituents of matter are little bitty strings vibrating within 10 (or maybe 11, or 26) different dimensions. It’s one of the candidates for the long-sought “Theory of Everything”: Rocks, scissors, paper, the human heart — all that surrounds us, that is us, comes down to these strings, which I picture as teensy violins. The Big Bang caused reverberations that are still pulsing across the universe in waves of cosmic harmonics. Robins hear earthworms beneath my garden’s surface and drag them out, squirming. Your heart beats between 60 and 100 times per minute, sending blood coursing through your body. Whales call to one another beneath the ocean. Black holes have their own pitches, 57 octaves below what the human ear can detect. Vibration is the universe’s unifying thread.

And the unifying thread across the front seat of my car. Through the searching speakers comes a slice of Toto’s “Africa.” Jake punches the button, cranks up the volume, and together we sing:

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do …

The kind of deafness that afflicted my dad is hereditary. Headphones will likely hasten the day when my son hears music in his head, but he’s got 30 or 40 more years before he does. I’ll be long gone by then. Still, I find the realization that he knows all the words to Men at Work’s “Down Under” comforting. To this day, I can’t hear “How Great Thou Art” without thinking of my father. For Jake’s final years to be accompanied by women who glow and men who plunder would be proof enough for me of string theory, of those tiny violins strung out across the universe, reverberating to the pulse of hearts that beat in time with one another generation after generation, here on Earth and somewhere out among the stars.

Originally published in the July 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.