09/15/2006 10:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Music in the Head: Living at the Brain-Mind Border; Part 2

I have lived this new way of life continuously now, 24/7 as they say, for over ten years. While hundreds of songs have come and gone, various ones have reigned from time to time. For the first six months or year or so, I explored mainly how to get rid of the intruders. Music came whenever my mind was empty, or whenever I checked to know if the music was there. When I was thinking about anything else, I was free. Sounds of music or song came when I stopped thinking, or finished talking to someone, or was just musing, or drifting, or going to sleep. Driving in a car with someone was o.k., alone I would be the target of automatic song. Not always, not when I was thinking. If I was listening to the radio, and interested, my mind was clear of my own music. If I was faking it, just to have an alternate sound, it did not work; the song would come.

It was interesting what a torrent of advice comes one's way from well-wishers, from professional to humble. My physician initially told me confidently that the music was due to the anesthesia, that it was common and would soon disappear; when it did not, then it came from the morphine. An E.N.T man to whom I told the story also said it is common and wanted to refer me to a neurosurgeon, "He will simply pass a trephine though the skull into the affected area and remove the focus, by either excision or electro-cautery, and you will be cured". From a serendipitous x-ray of the chest, my attention was drawn to a wire that was left in the chest after the open-heart surgery, for future use to connect to a pacemaker if needed. This can act as an antenna, I was told. "Have the wire removed". Two independent sources led to my teeth. A friend's dentist told her that metal fillings in the mouth sometimes magnetically or electrically attract music from the air-waves, and that this is commonly seen. Another person's acupuncturist, whom she told about my condition, asked her whether I have metal fillings in my mouth! Both advised that I have all my fillings removed! This would have disturbed one area in my body that has served me well all my life.

One also learns of related conditions and experiences. Although uncommon, people have reported similar conditions from strokes, infections, tumors; or side-effects of medication, as anti-biotics, or pain killers. Various medications were advised to alleviate the symptoms along the way: anti-convulsants, as dilantin, or tegratol, on the thesis that this music is a discharge phenomenon; or a sedative at night, as phenobarbitol or ambien, an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drug, prozac or xanax, or a general psychotropic as neurontin, which has a wide effect. Aspirin causes tinnitus, but could also cause music, so stay away from it. I have had experiences with most of these medications, and preferred not to go that route.


At first I regarded the sounds as alien, and tried hard and actively to get rid of them. I can turn on a tune in an instant. By merely thinking it, the tune starts (if it is one I know, or knew; I cannot invent one; I am not a composer). While I can turn a tune on at will, I cannot stop it once begun. My power to turn the music off is less under my will. I was inventive, and tried everything I could think of. First, of course, was to try not to think of them. Nancy Reagan says "just say no". A direct attack was like Mel Brooks' method of curing an obsession to tear paper. "I just told her, 'Don't tear paper' ". I did find that I could develop some control. If the tempo of a song was too fast, like running away with me at a galloping pace, I found I could slow it down, either by my singing it as slowly as I wish, or by introducing another, slower song. A song that started to accelerate like a fast treadmill was: "Oh, he floats through the air with the greatest of ease,
This daring young man on the flying trapeze". My daughter suggested a song she sang at a Christmas play, "Silent Night", to slow it up. I found I could slow a song or rhythm down as much as I want, even to a crawl. This gave relief.

There is a similarity to what I try to impart to any patient with an obsessive-compulsive symptom that I see so commonly in my clinical practice. But one is not an exact replica of the other. The psychic symptom is entirely, or mainly, psychological, while this musical intruder has an organic base (I put aside the debate about organic, genetic or cerebral origins of neurosis or psychosis). At bottom, there is actually always the body, as Freud himself pointed out. But psychoneurosis is the product of the patient, however much he needs and utilizes his brain to bring it about, while the musical impingement that visited me followed a physical event, an external interference with the blood supply to my brain.

The spontaneous song is also like a dream. The dream, like the song, comes on by itself, disappears when one attends to another realm, in that case conscious life, and is mostly forgotten. And both, I found, are connected to previous events, and contain a hidden message. There are "day residues", a recent or precipitating stimulus of the day before, to the automatic piece of music as to a dream. But again there is also a difference. There is a different relationship to consciousness. Wake up and the dream is gone, but not the song.; the awake song is closer to fantasy, a "day-dream". It can stay on, even take over. But while the song can be traced to a recent thought or event, it does not dip down to the individual life history as much. An Irving Berlin or Gershwin song touches the group heart and mind, not the individual's--except that they do reach universal chords--we celebrate together emotions that overlap in our human experiences. But in the song too, if I free associate, I can get to issues in the same realm as the dream, forbidden urges, unsolved problems, not unlike conflicts that are repressed and find their way into dream life, sexual and aggressive conflicts, as we find there.

The music always has meaning. Like a dream, a fantasy, a symptom, a character trait, any mental experience that wells up involuntarily from within, the song that is automatic, and the quality and contents of the accompanying music, is an external product with a complex and multiple interior that designates the nature of the psychological state at that moment in time.

The most trying moment, the test of whether I would be able to manage or control this new visitor, came each night at bedtime. The psychic prerequisite for falling asleep is for one to be able to detach from thoughts, give up thinking, free the mind. This is done quite automatically as a person "gives himself up to sleep". But that was precisely the trigger for the entrance of my opportunistic music, waiting in the wings for exactly such a cue. The challenge became apparent. Could I learn to do one while staving off the other? It was to be an exercise in mind control., with me perched between Scylla and Charybdis. If I try to think of nothing the music goes on. If I try to think of something to distract it, the music goes off but I have to keep thinking of the distracter. When I give that up the music comes on again. There was a night (or two?) when I was awake the whole night, not being able to take my mind off the songs, although I felt they were clinging to me, not me to them. It was in fact hard to know who was me, or is it which was I. The fact is, I was and am both, the conscious and unconscious realms, one the victim occupied, the other the intruder.

Trying consciously to turn the music off became like a game: try not to think of an elephant, and one can think of nothing else. It was funny, but it was serious. At times, in a pessimistic mode, I would have to ward off fear, in the extreme, a fear of hopelessness. In order to sleep, I tried an instrument bought in Sharper Image that emulates sounds of nature, wind, surf, waterfalls, leaves rustling, thunder, which are supposed to eradicate inner noises; you could also turn up the volume of each. What happened was that I remained awake listening to these sounds instead--if I turned them off, my own sounds returned. I tried listening to Vladimir Horowitz at the White House playing Chopin's Polonaise and Rachmaninoff. Inspiring; but it worked only while it was on. A friend insisted and induced me to see a hypnotist, who had helped him in some way. I conceded, and went through ten sessions. Maybe I was not a good subject, but my inner attitude made that approach at best irrelevant. One blessing was that there was no interference while I was practicing. In fact, if any rhythmic sound even began while I was with a patient, I knew I was not listening, and came right back to business.

On the other hand, I never awaken without a song or a rhythm announcing the mood of the day. The process of awakening is an everyday moment for the musical entrance. Either a song or tune already indicates the mood, or a preliminary cadence is there, in a neutral mood or on one side of pleasure or unpleasure, ready for "me" to add the song and define how I feel. Or just to do nothing and let it go away. I remember a "joke", that there are two types of people who wake up in the morning: one says "Good morning, God"; the other "Good God, morning".

After a decade of living with it, I have gone through many stages. I can say I have learned to live with it, but there was no choice, and a more accurate summary statement would be that it has gradually become a part of me, of who I am. It is a good way of learning how anything can become part of someone, which can apply to any foreign input, physical or mental, a memory, a trauma, an experience, even a chronic symptom, a headache, a shyness; all can become part of the self-image.


The number of songs that have passed through my head on their own volition has been so large as to make organizing them difficult. Songs, music, ditties and rhythms, in the hundreds, came in profusion, changed over time, were associated with events and seasons and specific experiences, signified moods, and at times defined a period or a chronic state of mind. "A fine romance, with no kisses" had its day in the sun. As with any dream, pursuing its contents leads to the stuff free associations are made of, which rightly belong to the ears of a psychoanalyst. Freud, as the instigator of these insights, bravely wrote of his dreams. But perhaps too little was known at that time for him to be concerned about self-revelation.

An early song, in the days just home from the hospital, was a sudden experience: at 5 AM, as I am sitting up with heavy feet and severe auditory symptoms, worried about both, out of nowhere, "God Bless America, land of the free, stand beside her, and guide her,", etc. breaks out in its entirety: "God Bless America,/ Land that I love/Stand beside her,/And guide her,/Through the night with the light from above,/From the mountains,/To the prairies,/To the ocean,/White with foam,/God bless America,/My home sweet home,/God bless America,/My home sweet home." This song was not related to a burst of patriotism, but to the obvious home, sweet home.

Another early song: the tune comes first, the words I had to search for, like I do sometimes by asking people: "Ah! Sweet mystery of life, at last I've found thee,/Ah! I know at last the secret of it all,/All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning,/The burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall!/For 'tis love, and love alone, the world is seeking,/And 'tis love, and love alone, that can repay!/'Tis the answer, 'tis the end and all the living,/For it is love alone that rules for aye!". The tune alone brings with it the affect; the words make it more specific and intense. I am not one who knows the lyrics of all these songs. Mostly, the lead lines are enough. I have to look the rest of it up.

Of the song categories, the romantic were by far the most. My wife Anita passed away in 1997, less than two years after she was glued to my side at the time of the operation. The largest bulk of the songs centered on her. "It happened in Monterey, a long time ago, /I met her in Monterey, in ol' Mexico. /Stars an' steel guitars and luscious lips as red as wine, /Broke somebody's heart and I'm afraid that it was mine." The song was not literal; neither are dreams. It was not Monterey Mexico, but Monterey, California. We did not meet there, but it was meaningful to us, where we spent big times over many years.

Another recurrent tune pointed me in the same direction:: "In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, /You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade. /I'll be all in clover and when they look you over, /I'll be the proudest fellow in the easter parade. /On the avenue, fifth avenue, the photographers will snap us, /And you'll find that you're in the rotogravure. /Oh, I could write a sonnet about your easter bonnet, /And of the girl I'm taking to the easter parade." (As I write each song, it plays loudly in my head). It was not an Easter bonnet, but a flat, saucy red velvet hat she wore on our first dates at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

The most startling instance of the power of memory of the unconscious was one morning when I was awakened by a song running over and over again that made me sad. First the insistent tune, then the words turned out to be: "My Bonnie lies over the ocean, /My Bonnie lies over the sea. /My Bonnie lies over the ocean, /Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me. /Chorus: Bring back, /Bring back, /Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me. /Bring back, /Bring back, /Please bring back my Bonnie to me... /Last night as I lay on my pillow /Last night as I lay on my bed /Last night as I lay on my pillow /I dreamt my poor Bonnie was dead /chorus /The winds have blown over the ocean /The winds have blown over the sea /The winds have blown over the ocean /And brought back my Bonnie to me." I think further. It is the day of our 67th wedding anniversary! Her ashes were indeed in that ocean, scattered at the shore of Carmel, next to Monterey. If I was sad with the tune, remembering the words brought tears. This song stayed for days.

I never remembered words without the tune, always the reverse. Emotions are less in repression than the associated ideas. Words are acquired later developmentally as well; an infant reacts and sways to sounds long before he can speak words. Verbal language stamps the human evolutionarily, as in ontogenetic development. Birds sing, animals feel, and communicate, but not, as far as we know, with words. We know bird songs, but not lyrics.


Other Anita songs: "I met a million dollar baby/in a five and ten cent store". This was always squarely Anita, even after Clint Eastwood put a claim on it. Or "Just Molly and me, /and baby makes three /all happy in my blue heaven", after our first-born, in 1941. No question about it.

Not all the music was profound, or serious; they ranged to the trivial. One day I suddenly belted out (from within): "Seventy six trombones led the big parade /With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand..." I did not know why, when someone pointed out the 76 gas station across the street, which I had not noticed but my unconscious did. This did not lead to any big deal, although I can find some if I free associate. A day at Chavez ravine to see the Dodgers play was a happy high with my young family decades ago. This was the song came that came through loud and clear at every 7th inning break.

Some of the songs I regarded as "pep talk messages", "go at it, get going". Or marching songs, or action or morale songs. At times of pulling the covers over me on arising, I would hear: "Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning. /Oh, how I'd love to remain in bed. /For the hardest blow of all, /Is to hear the bugler call; /You've got to get up, /You've got to get up, /You've got to get up this morning./Someday I'm going to murder the bugler. /Someday they're going to find him dead. /I'll amputate his reveille and stomp upon it heavily, /And spend the rest of my life in bed!" Or while shaving (this is a sure time for the music), a related song going back to my World War 2 days seemed to fuse with the last one: "You're in the Army now, you're not behind a plough, You'll never get rich, you son of a bitch, you're in the Army now". The mood linked them. It is an old Irving Berlin song. He spanned two Wars with it. I recently heard it replayed on TV. The songs fade away as I get into my morning.

The variety of songs was in keeping with the kaleidoscope of life. "Three blind mice, three blind mice, /See how they run, see how they run, /They all ran after the farmer's wife, /Who cut off their tails with a carving knife, /Did you ever see such a thing in your life, /As three blind mice?" I was giving a seminar on castration anxiety, which I have written about. There were travel songs, "places" songs, time songs, special events songs. Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra singing "New York, New York" can break me up: "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere," rips me into pieces; it harkens back to a life. "Chicago, Chicago" (where I went to Medical school) has its own power. 'Ev'rythin's up to date in Kansas City/They've gone about as fur as they c'n go!" I had just been with a close person who came from Kansas. A song, as a dream, condenses, refers to more than one thought. Why Kansas City? If you think further, you get more. As I was speaking to that person, from what we were saying, I said to him, in jest but not in jest, "So the red states are also against Bush". That's why I was cheerful.

Songs are seasonal as well as regional. Xmas brought its own collection, from "Jingle bells" to "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas". Judy Garland singing "Somewhere over the rainbow\skies are blue" somehow joined this group easily. Mostly, I had just heard it on television during the holiday season, in a program of old time musical comedies or films. The simplest of songs, referring to special events, "Happy birthday", or "Here comes the bride", but with individual meanings, knowing to whom and to which specific circumstances I am applying them, can melt me with their associations.

A mood can have a powerful embrace. A melancholy song-memory mourned for an epoch, for a whole generation: "Once I built a railroad,/ made it run/Made it race against time/Once I built a railroad,/ now it's done/Brother can you spare a dime--Once I built a tower to the sun/Brick and rivet and lime/Once I built a tower, now it's done/Brother can you spare a dime?" brings an ache for a time in history--Okies, and Grapes of Wrath" pervade me. Opposite tunes are "jaunty, jolly", after the great record of Mel Brooks that was a staple in my family.