The music in the mountains, and in your head

November 2, 2015

I remember as a child how inspired and fascinated I was when I saw, for the very first time, my all-time favourite movie, The Sound of Music, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, starring Julie Andrews.

The image of Miss Andrews running across the Bavarian meadows of Mehlweg mountain, near Marktschellenberg, at the start of the movie, arms wide open, dressed in a dirndl, and later the stunning baroque architecture of the ancient city of Salzburg are etched deeply in my memory.

The movie ends as the Von Trapp family flee using the famous Salzburg music festival as a means of diversion.

Attending the Salzburg Festival, which is now almost 100 years’ old, has become the annual highlight of my summer. Along with nearly 300,000 other music and drama lovers every year, I have been privileged to hear performers of the highest calibre in a sublime setting.

This has been the stage for so many superb musicians from Arturo Toscanini in the 1930s to Herbert von Karajan in the 1960s, up to Placido Domingo last year. No wonder audiences are drawn from more than 70 countries around the world.

But is it the festival which makes the music so engaging? The Alpine air? The strudel? The loyal and devoted festival goers?

Or is it the music itself which triggers the memory – and makes repeat attendance almost irresistible? Recent studies have found that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.

In a study from the University of Newcastle in Australia, popular music was used to help severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories. The research published in the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, in December 2013, studied “music-evoked autobiographical memories” (MEAMs).

The majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period, and were typically positive. Songs that evoked a memory were noted as being more familiar and more well-liked than songs that did not trigger a MEAM.

An earlier study from the University of California, in 2009, mapped the brain while people listened to music and found specific brain regions linked to autobiographical memories. Emotions were also activated by familiar music.

Here – and not for the first time – I see science confirming something many of us already instinctively know: to hear our favourite music can cement memories which we may later draw on for spiritual nourishment.

The Salzburg Festival is undoubtedly my favourite place to listen to opera, but the location is enhanced by the pleasure I have already acquired from my favourite works. I may delight in the chance to hear music in Austria, but I do not need to be physically there to draw strength from the sublime sonatas of Mozart. My own neural pathways – it seems – can fly me there as effectively, and more quickly, than any aeroplane.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation