The Healing Power of Music | by Hannah Peel

According to neuroscientists, we develop sound receptors in the auditory cortex of the brain at 16 weeks in gestation, so we have our first audio experiences from the word go.

My first memory of ‘sound’ happened around the age of two. Following an allergic reaction to penicillin, I remember waking up in a hospital cot completely engulfed in the sounds of the hospital, clashing metal… people talking… Some years later, the first song to move me to the point of, ‘Wow, so that’s what music can do to you,’ was Close to You by The Carpenters. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone sing so beautifully.

My grandmother had dementia. When she was young, she used to recite the Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats. She would even sing it around the house. Poetry is another form of verse or song, and even though all through her illness she didn’t know who we were or the fact that she had been married for 60 years, she could still recite that poem right up until her death.

Looking back, I wish I had known sooner about the difference music can make to those suffering with a dementia. It wasn’t until we started to sing Christmas carols to my grandmother that she started to sing along with us. She was a singer for most of her life so that moment of being able to reconnect with her was overwhelming. Her illness really opened a door for me and inspired my work. For my album, Awake But Always Dreaming, I began to imagine where my grandmother would go in those quiet moments and tried to recreate that other world. Experiential electronic sounds really helped do that.

Dementia also sparked the idea for the Memory Tapes, which was initially created for a BBC Radio 6 Music programme hosted by the DJ Lauren Laverne. I like to think of it as a time capsule; a compilation of songs, which resonate with me ~ ones I played constantly in my formative teenage years. I thought that if I ever develop dementia and there still isn’t a cure by then, my children and grandchildren will be able to connect with me through a mix tape of songs.

I love the sound of the sea but not a calm sea. I compose tracks in a studio in North West Donegal, where my family is from. It is quite remote and the weather is often very wild but on a beautiful day you get the perfect combination of sunshine and huge waves crashing up against the rocks. I can sit for hours listening to that sound. In contrast, my other studio is in a basement in East London. Despite having no natural daylight, it’s a beautiful lab-like space, filled with lots of synths and electronic instruments. It’s where all my ideas come together in one place.

As a musician, having a mobile phone is incredibly useful for recording abstract sounds. I find that the voice memo compresses sound in quite a strange way. For instance, I recently recorded the sound of a digger smashing up a concrete pavement, which has since become the sound of a snare drum in my latest work. As an artist you absorb what is going on around you. Today, we have sounds and music in the background all the time so when I write and compose I do so with a sense of deeper meaning and hopefully that communicates to everyone else.

Hannah Peel is an Irish singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger now based in London. Following several EPs, her anticipated second solo album Awake But Always Dreaming was released by her own imprint label My Own Pleasure Records, in 2016. The album delves deep into the failure of brain neurons and memory.