A SONG IN THE HEAD
by Norman Warwick
When I accepted Peter Courtney commissioning me to write his biography I had no idea how difficult his mental health, and physical health, in the shape of a hugely debilitating state of Parkinsons, might make the task.
How many of us have said at some time or another that we just can´t get a song out of our head. For those of us in good mental health it is used as a kind of throw-away remark, (often about a song we find ´catchy´and really enjoy) but there is a suffering called ´last song syndrome´ that can terribly affect a small minority of people who seemingly become unable to turn off the music they constantly hear in their head.
A man was struggling so badly with a medical condition which meant songs kept getting ´stuck in his head´ that he took his own life, an inquest has heard.
Anthony Walters, 55, said ´last song syndrome´ had killed him in a note he left for his father, who said his son had become obsessed by the condition
An inquest into the death, last year, heard the man had phoned his friend David Williams and told him he soon intended to end his life. He told Mr Williams he had been depressed for a long time and could not sleep due to last song syndrome. Mr Williams immediately informed South Wales Police, who also received a call from Mr Walters himself, notifying them he was going to jump from a viaduct.
Police arrived at the scene at 1.25pm and saw Mr Walters standing on the viaduct in a precarious position, Swansea Guildhall heard. Officers could see Mr Walters was prepared to jump and 11 minutes later, more police arrived, including a police negotiator who had been aware of the incident. By 2pm the 55-year-old remained in the same position and informed officers he did not want to speak to them. Five minutes later, Mr Walters jumped and subsequently he was tragically pronounced dead.
Investigators later found a suicide note and his mobile phone was also retrieved from his home.
He had shared the house with his father, David Walters, who said his son had once said he would rather be dead than go through having last song syndrome. The inquest heard he had left notes of proof of ownership for his car, information concerning bills, and notes apologising for his actions. He detailed how he had been suffering from depression and lack of sleep, adding how he had a song going round in his head all the time which “has killed him”. Mr Walters said his son had become “obsessed” about last song syndrome, and would research the condition repeatedly.
A post-mortem examination report prepared by Dr John Williams heard how Mr Walters had died from blunt force trauma injuries.
Evidence from Dr Anthony Icke, of the Vale of Neath GP Practice, heard how Anthony had a long history of mental health disorder, having been diagnosed with obsessional neurosis and insomnia.
A 2015 study into the disorder by Reading University, (crest shown right) had traced references to the syndrome as far back to at least the 19th century, and noted that works by authors like Mark Twain (see our cover image) referenced what were called ´earworms´.
How strange that this terribly sad story has been so quickly followed by a remarkable recovery of musician and BBC Radio 3 presenter Clemency Burton-Hill. The classical violinist spent two and a half weeks in a coma earlier this year and she now has no doubt that she was brought back to well-being by the music that was constantly piped through a tiny speaker on a cabinet by her bed. Her family and friends had created a playlist specially for her, reflecting eclectic tastes that covered the classical, of course, but also renaissance music as well as jazz and funk !
Even when the music had been playing on a loop for several days medical staff prepared the family for the worst, reminding them that a massive brain haemorrhage from ´a tangle of abnormal blood vessels´ connecting arteries and veins in her brain could leave Clemency unable to walk, or speak or ´understand´, far less resume a career of playing her violin in great concert halls around the world.
Then there was a glimmer of light when a friend, opera singer Andrew Staples, during a visit to her bedside noticed she seemed to be tapping her toes in time to the music of Brahms. He thinks he noticed because the piece itself was a somewhat unlikely music to inspire such ´happy feet.´
A few days afterwards, in the seventeenth day of a coma Beverley feels she could feel her mind determining that to do this, and recalls ´a feeling of I´m going to get through this.
For all that Clemency praises the heroics of medical staff and the first class hospital treatment it was the music and that moment that brought her round.
She still faced months of rehabilitation to learn to see, speak and walk all over again and music played an important part along this part of the road to recovery, too.
´Music is the opposite of despair,´ she says.
An article about Clemency´s fight was published in The Daily Mail and collaborative writers Jane Fryer and John Naish pointed out, in an excellent piece, that Clemency´s story of courage and revelation might be hugely inspiring but it is not actually unique.
They identify other musicians, including Barry Todd, a Coventry choir master who recovered after hearing in his state of coma, a recording of Give a Little Whistle, the last piece he had rehearsed with his choir before being taken ill.
The late Robin Gibb, of The Bee Gees, fell into a coma during a bout of pneumonia and he only came out of that twelve days later when family members played him some his favourite songs, such as Crying by Roy Orbison. The song cut through the coma state and caused him to sob, so bringing him out into the world again
It all seems inexplicable, that a track by Robbie Williams or Adele can generate a recovery that the world´s best medical care have been unable to bring about but there are many stories of that happening.
Some studies are suggesting that having loved music and trained as a musician may offer some sort of neurological head-start on the road to recovery, perhaps such regular learning and playing seems to reinforce the bundle of nerves that serve as a super-information highway between the right and left lanes of the brain.,
Further informing medical study in this field are stories of people being brought back to the light not only by the music they play but also by the very instrument on which they play that music
When a twenty year old oboist called Sara fell into a river and nearly drowned her brain suffered severe oxygen starvation. Sara´s teacher visited her in hospital, placed the girl´s oboe beside her on the bed and played tapes of Sara´s previous performances. The continuance of her oboe studies after she had come ´back´to life´ then also proved crucial on a long haul to recovery.
Clemency Burton-Hill is now convinced the study and playing of music aids the ambidexterity of the brain and certainly the rapidity and range of her recovery progress over the last few months has amazed even her doctors. How strange it is, though, that for many music can revive and resuscitate but, sadly, for a smaller minority, can become so horribly obtrusive as to make life not worth living.