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Where the Music Takes Us: A musical journey from the MRI machine to the cosmos

Seven months after I’d had surgery on one shoulder, it looked like the other one was in line for the knife, too. So I loaded myself onto the MRI machine and let it pull me into its all-seeing maw. Anyone who has taken the ride down the magnetic tunnel will recognize the serenade of click-and-honk that greets the ears. To some it’s a cacophony comparable to being stuck in a very small room with a snoring man while a solicitor knocks endlessly on the door. To me, it’s always been — yes, I’ve been in these machines a few times — a rhythmic experience, not quite like being in the presence of Gene Krupa or Ringo Starr, but a pleasant mix of backbeat and syncopation nonetheless, just the right amount of sense to stir things up in the sensory deprivation chamber. So, yes, don’t tell the insurance company, but I rather like my time in the tube.

Generally, riders in the tunnel of clicks are offered their choice of musical genres to overwhelm the noise. I usually turn down the offer. The technicians shrug and send me on my way. Sometimes, when I am in the tube, they ask me if I am OK. I am, in fact, beyond OK — I’m in diagnostic nirvana in there, without my phone. The phone always asks me to look outward; the MRI, appropriately enough, gives me a moment to look inward.

(Sveta Lari)
"Listening Between the Lines," by Sveta Lari, the cover of our Fall 2023 issue.

But on the day of my recent study, I finally took the bait and accepted music. I can’t say why I did so on this particular day. My world had been spinning fast, and I suppose I needed an extra sonic edge if I were to experience my customary MRI bliss. I requested classical music, expecting some sleepy strings from a concerto remembered only in the encyclopedic mind of Spotify. Instead I got the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

If you are looking to simply disappear for a few precious minutes, may I suggest that the Ninth is the wrong music for you. The Ninth is neither anesthetic nor melatonin replacement. It is a rocket ship to everywhere, somehow fashioned 40 years before Jules Verne fashioned his flying machine from mere words. With all due respect to writers, I humbly submit that music can take us further and faster and deeper into the galactic dust of our dreams.

I was flat on my back in the MRI and somehow utterly on the edge of my seat. The Ninth swelled like high seas under lightning skies, then receded into meditative calm before exploding into a category-five hurricane. It rocked me here, it tossed me there; the chorus appeared and began singing the “Ode to Joy.” All men will be brothers. This was the late-Enlightenment, early-Romantic way of saying, We will rock you. In fact, I could hear the MRI machine playing along: Boom-Boom-CHUCK, Boom-Boom-CHUCK. Times change, sentiments change, but the music still makes you want to get out of your seat and up on your feet, even if you’re in a million-dollar magnetic tube.

“Thirty more seconds,” the technician said.

“Hurry up, Beethoven,” I thought. “I want to hear the end.”

Alas, my shoulder was right and truly scanned before the final crescendo, and I was forced to disembark early, still looking for someplace to land. ◆

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