1669 An essential need

Wired for Music: A Search for Health and Joy Through the Science of Sound
by Adriana Barton

Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2022
$32.95 / 9781771645546

Reviewed by Derek von Essen


The afternoon Wired for Music arrived in the post was the same day I tested positive for Covid-19. I wasn’t surprised by the result. While on a flight home the day before, I was hit with a massive sinus headache. It was as if someone had cranked up the volume knob of my ever-present tinnitus. My ears popped and sound just evaporated. The hollowness of muffled sound and warbled voices persisted past the airport exit gate, then with a hard step off the curb one ear popped back in. The other returned during a phone call the next morning. A thoroughly discombobulating experience.

Andrea Barton‘s Wired for Music is loaded with revelations surrounding sound and music. We’re sponges for auditory experiences and dopamine-infused rushes — though I’d rather not lose my hearing again which, frankly, was a little terrifying.

For the most part, Barton spends considerable time explaining some of the insecurities many of us have connecting to or rather not connecting to music and rhythm. As a musician she’s had to deal with her own issues, but it’s to the average non-musician she seemingly directs the first half of the book. With a tinge of self-help flavouring, she certainly talks the reader down from the ledge of non-connectivity to music. The essential need for it is foremost, and one can’t help but get wrapped up in the stories Barton shares.

Adriana Barton

I have my own hang-ups, having spent time in many friendships with musicians who always tried to encourage me to pick up an instrument. My love of music has been longstanding, with an extensive LP/CD collection at home, plus years working at record stores, and many more photographing live bands in performance. Through school I played sax, flute, and clarinet, but none for longer than a year and definitely none with any level of skill to blow a horn at. Music teachers were also not kind to my attempts, and my experiences echo some of Barton’s accounts.

While reading Wired for Music, I felt justified in having so many quirks about the who, what, when and where of music that I choose to listen to. Classical or acoustic in the mornings, loud and energetic in the afternoons, unless it’s a sunny summer day when reggae seems timely; old-school R&B is great in the evenings, jazz any time, and a multitude of late night choices too long to list. There’s music for when you’re happy and want to celebrate, sad music for when you want to commiserate, loud when you want to shout, music for your depression, anxiety, meditation, tragedies, and for when you’re feeling nostalgic. Music for lovers, fighters, dancers, elevator attendants, and every culture under the sun.

There’s plenty of name dropping here to whet the pop-culture appetite — from famous musicians to dabblers in music such as Albert Einstein. Star power aside, there’s plenty of crossover vocations such as “neurologist and amateur trumpet player,” to name one, for her interview subjects. It’s yet more proof to me that an endless array of people play music. Some great, many good, others bad. But it’s all for the love of playing it. Interspersed are Barton’s quips of her own struggles with the classical teaching method she endured as a child, which by all accounts left some psychological trauma. Footloose and fancy free seems the best way to go for beginners! Or at least that’s the impression to be left with, which is fine by my self-taught standards.

Adriana Barton practising cello, aged 5. Courtesy Adriana Barton

“Sound waves physically alter the molecules in the air” writes Barton (p. 114) — a scientific gem pointing to our bodies’ ability, especially the skin, to absorb sound and therefore music. With this one quotation, Barton has provided me with the ultimate conversation starter at any performance event, whether standing in the lobby beforehand or chatting during the intermission. Wired for Music is also validating to anyone wondering why they seek mood music for love, work, productivity, and everything in between.

The science of music segues into “Bad Vibrations,” the chapter dedicated to music for evil purposes, and was an especially adsorbing read. Music to obsess over, music as torture, fascist music, anti-moralistic, PTSD-inducing, murderous soundtrack accompanying, bogus sound healing music. Quite literally music for any and every occasion.

With Barton’s previous work as a health and science reporter for The Globe and Mail, it’s natural to find a segment here on the physical and psychological effects of music. As if getting high with music, dancing, raving, trancing, and “jamming with cicadas” wasn’t enough, a running theme through Wired for Music is the author’s life-long struggle — mentally and physically — with her relationship to the cello. Brought up striving for the perfection of classical playing, she tirelessly learned to improve her skill level. Fine words! — but the impact and scars it left on her make for a fascinating backdrop to her lifelong connection to music. Perhaps this ability to overcome obstacles, to adapt and focus when applied to the exhaustive research and tech-talk she takes the reader through, was a necessary experience for envisioning and writing such a book as this.

Adrian Barton

Wired for Music covers an incredible number of facts, fun, and personal experiences under the umbrella topic of music. I suppose that in itself suggests how broad-reaching music is in our lives. The human spirit, if I were to put a catch phrase to it, is represented well in Wired for Music. This book is an inspirational read that had me thinking — and just as I was bouncing around the idea of which instrument I should try to learn, I reached “The Beat Goes On,” the chapter where Barton’s real sales pitch happens. Like a locker room coach in motivational speaker mode, she sells us on learning an instrument while leaving the choice to us after her rousing pep talk.

Wired for Music will be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in our connection to music and the physiological and cultural reasoning behind it. Barton’s life experiences contribute a great deal to the content, but it’s her steering of musical subjects through an analytical lens of research and discussion that make for such a great marriage. An African spirit healer, speaking from the ancestral beyond, said to her, “No more fear.” Applying that to my situation, should I try to pick up the clarinet again, or try guitar? Perhaps learn some blues on one of the many harmonicas I own, but have never played? Or maybe I’ll get a drum!


Derek Von Essen

Derek von Essen has created an extensive body of work merging graphic arts, photography, painting, and mixed-media assemblage for visual communications specializing in fine arts, dance, theatre, music, film, and publishing projects. He has facilitated artist workshops, sat on various panels and juries, has a lengthy exhibition history, and has work in several international collections. His book of photographs, No Flash, Please! Underground Music in Toronto 1987-92 (Anvil Press, 2016) isn’t on any bestseller lists, and though his work has won absolutely no awards, he’s been favoured on numerous Honourable Mention lists — and he’s fine with that. He now lives near the beach and among the trees in Roberts Creek, BC. Visit his website. Editor’s note: Derek von Essen has also reviewed books by James Barber, Amanda Siebert, and Charles Ulrich for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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