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Music, Math, and Medicine

My family’s doctor after we moved to Connecticut, was a wonderful, gregarious, and rather eccentric man.  He was medical “royalty,” being the son of a renowned physician and scientist, and he would tell us stories of his boyhood, and the time he had spent in the company of Albert Einstein, a family friend.

When I told him I planned on becoming a doctor, he shook his head in dismay.  He said, “I don’t know how you will do it!”  When he saw that I appeared a bit hurt, he quickly added, “I don’t know how anyone could do it in this day and age!”  When asked why, he told of the incredibly long hours he had to spend reading, reading, reading, and studying, studying, studying.  And that had been many years before – how much worse and more difficult it would be now!  “New information!  New ideas!  Every day, something new!  And you will have to learn, remember, and know, and keep up with it all!”  He told me to make sure that being a doctor is what I really wanted to do.

At the time, I was quite certain.  I hung on to that thought until it came time to apply to college, my senior year in high school.  It became clear to me that I was no longer in love with school.  I loved reading, and learning, but I recognized that I didn’t especially like school, and there were many aspects of school that I loathed.  I told myself that if I really planned on becoming a doctor, I would be in school for an absolute minimum of the next ten years, and even more depending on what specialty I chose.  I knew that I did not have the heart for it – at least at that time – so I made another choice.

Music! I also loved music.  I had started out at a very young age playing piano and organ, and was considered a musical prodigy.  My parents were great supporters, and my Dad was instrumental in seeing that an organ was purchased for me.  It was a beautiful organ, a Baldwin, large enough for a mid-sized church, and I loved it.  I also loved to sing.  After a few years, singing began to move into a more prominent place in my affections, but my love of the organ and piano never went away.

So I decided to pour my energies into music, with an eye on being a great singer and actress, drama being another love, and one that I thought would bring me enhanced fulfillment.

My dear doctor/mentor smiled one day after we had one of our discussions and he said “Well, you have two of the three – that’s for sure!”  “Two of the three what?” I asked.  “The ‘Three M’s,'” he said. “Music, Math, and Medicine.”  He had learned that if you were good in one area, you were highly likely to be good in at least one of the other two.  He had heard me play the organ and sing, and that, along with my interests in life sciences and medicine, I had Music and Medicine sewn up!

I remember asking him if I had to have the third in order to make it, because if a love of and facility in Math was going to be a prerequisite to my success as a physician, I was in deep trouble!  He said that loving all three was not a requirement, but in almost every physician he knew, he found in him or her a keen love and affinity for either music or math, or both!

I invite you to test this theory!  It has proved to be almost invariably true with the physicians of whom I have asked the question.  I will ask him or her if he or she played an instrument, or studied music.  Most times the answer was a definite yes.  Their involvement in music was not just a passing fancy, but music often played a significant part in their lives. I also inquire about their love for math, and I often get a positive response to that question as well.

The question has also been asked of mathematicians, although not as many.  Mainly because I don’t know many of them.  But there is a very interesting relationship between music and math and medicine.  Doubtless it is because of the areas of the brain that are involved in learning and practicing all three.  With my incredible ineptitude in math, it is likely a good thing that I did not attend medical school – saved myself a lot of frustration.  The game of the Three M’s is one I still play on occasion.  Match the doctor with the musical instrument, or guess which area of math is the favorite.

Because of my long history of illness, I have had to learn my way around doctor-speak, and out of self defense I have made it my business to know as much about the illnesses and diseases that I have had to deal with over the years.  Doctors frequently ask me if I am a physician, and my standard answer is “Yes. I am a graduate and post-doctorate fellow from the College of Medical Experience.  And I am a musician.”  Some don’t even blink an eye.  But I laugh, and it is enough. . .

 

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