Where songs catch : an anatomy

In the beginning there were two sounds: the Charleston and the chorus. The Charleston was the spring dance rhythm my great grandma played on her piano; the chorus, heavy Greek lullabies that other relatives sung to me until I cried. The first animated my hips and knees; the latter made my throat lumpy.

First sounds. Picasso Bacchanal, fragment

There’s no question that music moves us, whether to feeling or inertia. Pop songs especially, are infinitely reproducible through lyrics sung in the shower or a beat tapped into the ground. Each song has al/chemical properties, though reactions vary wildly from person to person: the same few bars of a Stones song might make Lia in Florence feel mellow, and prime Mark in Sydney for confrontation.

My fascination with these fluctuations has led me to create an anatomy, of where songs catch in my own body. This entirely subjective map has been conceived from top to toe by someone who loves music, but has had barely any formal training in it.


Medial orbitofrontal cortex, anterior insular and toe nexus

 Some music appeals to my intellect and imagination – it lifts me to my toes as though forcing an escape from gravity. The medial orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insular in the brain are responsible for the recognition of visual, musical and even mathematical beauty.   Mon Amie la rose, a troubadour-style lyric about a young girl’s love for a rose, by the French singer, Françoise Hardy, has the symmetry of a perfectly balanced equation. The austere monosyllabic rhyme of ‘rose’ and ‘chose’ (thing); the gliding assonance, ‘la lune cette nuit/ a veillé mon amie/ moi en rêve j’ai vu/ éblouissante et nu‘* creating gentle echoes throughout. It has a nocturne’s softness to it, and yet for me it is a wakeful, morning song in a long tradition of love-flower lyrics.

Music for a higher plane. Picasso, heliogravure, April 1948

Hypothalmus, brain stem and eyelids

  Childhood memories of boredom, nausea, usually in the car, being driven somewhere. Greek songs playing on the radio, every word drawn out so it has the lifespan of… oh –  at least a guinea pig. The eye imagery -the beloved  described in terms of the singer’s own pair- a continuum from song to song. You might have a chain of: ‘mi mou thimoneis matia mou‘ (Don’t be angry my eyes); tha kleiso ta matia (I’ll close my eyes); thalasses mesa sta matia sou (seas in your eyes) ; ta begalika sou matia (your firework eyes). Pressing  my own eyelids into a car-upholstery-scented dream. Gravity to my scalp, beneath that the hypothalamus responsible for sleep and nervous functioning.  If I’m especially unlucky, the savant driver will rouse me to give an account of the singer’s usually miserable end- alcoholic, penniless and eaten by fleas. But the savant doesn’t think the stories are depressing; merely factual. Moreover, the sonorities that induce sleep in me, move them to courtship or nationalism; nostalgia about seaside rendezvous and the smoking they gave up; a slipped through appreciation of their proximity to the Middle East.

Cheeks, front of throat, skin

‘Johnny, Brooklyn born and bred/ Put ideas in to my head/ Can’t remember what he said/ But I know it wasn’t true…’ The uneven honky-tonk rhythm, clatter of rhymes – plus one anomaly, in Caitlin Rose’s New York is laughter incarnate. I feel my skin stretch and smile. Then, there’s Stevie Wonder and The Carpenters, 70s tunes that diffuse like filmy bubbles, trapping sunshine.

Sunflower crooner or weeping willow? Picasso, 1940s

Back of throat, sinuses, tear ducts

In a previous life, I think I was an Irish immigrant, displaced to America. I say this, because certain Irish ballads and their folk descendants invoke the saddest memories I’ve never had. Imagine- trying to explain to my then boyfriend the compulsion to go to Connemara (home to the best Irish balladeers, according to Colm Tobín’s Brooklyn );why tears were streaming down my face when a pub quartet sung about Danny going to America and the beeoooo– tee-full Ten-nes-see Waltz. The lone trills of the singer’s voice, the dactylic rhythm (one stressed accent, followed by two unstressed), a fatal dance in itself. In Ireland, a white-haired man sang a hot jagged rendition,  but this version by folk-country singer  Emmylou Harris has a stoic melancholy.


 Music paced expansively, so that a tree could branch within you. Good for healing injuries, physical and emotional. Beyonce’s Hold Up literally holds up the succession of breaths, procuring a swaying sense of tranquillity.


Rock and roll is attuned to the heartbeat.  ‘I don’t know why my heart flips/ I only know it does…’ Buddy Holly sings. The first time I heard Everyday, it was drummed onto the kitchen table by a boy in a green t-shirt. And I’ve not found a better echo of the human heart, or marking time.  Then there is the accelerated heart-beat, in Dusty Springfield’s urgently percussive Anyone Who Had A Heart, which squeezes an excessive number of words into a musical phrase. The refrain ‘Anyone who has a heart would take me in his arms and love me too/ You/ Couldn’t really have a heart and hurt me like you hurt me and be so untrue’ creates a discomfiting sensation of skipped beats and breathlessness.

Picasso, The Dream (of Nirvana), 1932

Hip-stomach nexus

 Nirvana drags you along to relentless rhythms, a narcotic wrap around your  hips; unexpected corners that flip your stomach. Belly dance music also awakens hip-stomach energy, throwing serpentine figures into the air around your body, before you’ve even begun to move. Phrases crash into one another like waves- a fairytale embellished with each passing night.

Hip-knee-sole nexus

Finally, beat and a manifesto lyric delivered tongue in cheek- every foldable joint in your body an accordion pleat. Probably jumping up and down, a mirror image of the over-privileged daddy’s girl in the Pulp song, who wants to be like common people. Or perhaps, the boy judging her.


Of course, there’s songs that flush through; don’t catch at all. And these intrigue me just as much.  Linda Ronstadt, a folk singer who grew up on the musically fertile US Mexico border, once said ‘if I didn’t hear it by the time I was ten, I won’t be able to sing it with any authenticity.’** I half agree – memory has an important function, but so does imagination and the epidemic of new rhythms.

De mémoire d’homme III, Picasso

*’The moon this night/ Has watched over my friend/ I saw him in a dream/ Dazzling and naked.’

** This was long before any talk of walls.


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