Anika Paulson: How I found myself through music

The philosopher Plato once said, "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything." Music has always been a big part of my life. To create and to perform music connects you to people countries and lifetimes away. It connects you to the people you're playing with, to your audience and to yourself. When I'm happy, when I'm sad, when I'm bored, when I'm stressed, I listen to and I create music.

When I was younger, I played piano; later, I took up guitar. And as I started high school, music became a part of my identity. I was in every band, I was involved with every musical fine arts event. Music surrounded me. It made me who I was, and it gave me a place to belong.

Now, I've always had this thing with rhythms. I remember being young, I would walk down the hallways of my school and I would tap rhythms to myself on my leg with my hands, or tapping my teeth. It was a nervous habit, and I was always nervous. I think I liked the repetition of the rhythm -- it was calming.

Then in high school, I started music theory, and it was the best class I've ever taken. We were learning about music -- things I didn't know, like theory and history. It was a class where we basically just listened to a song, talked about what it meant to us and analyzed it, and figured out what made it tick. Every Wednesday, we did something called "rhythmic dictation," and I was pretty good at it. Our teacher would give us an amount of measures and a time signature, and then he would speak a rhythm to us and we would have to write it down with the proper rests and notes. Like this: ta ta tuck-a tuck-a ta, ta tuck-a-tuck-a-tuck-a, tuck-a. And I loved it. The simplicity of the rhythm -- a basic two- to four- measure line -- and yet each of them almost told a story, like they had so much potential, and all you had to do was add a melody.

Rhythms set a foundation for melodies and harmonies to play on top of. It gives structure and stability. Now, music has these parts -- rhythm, melody and harmony -- just like our lives. Where music has rhythm, we have routines and habits -- things that help us to remember what to do and to stay on track, and to just keep going. And you may not notice it, but it's always there.

And it may seem simple, it may seem dull by itself, but it gives tempo and heartbeat. And then things in your life add on to it, giving texture -- that's your friends and your family, and anything that creates a harmonic structure in your life and in your song, like harmonies, cadences and anything that makes it polyphonic. And they create beautiful chords and patterns.

And then there's you. You play on top of everything else, on top of the rhythms and the beat because you're the melody. And things may change and develop, but no matter what we do, we're still the same people. Throughout a song melodies develop, but it's still the same song. No matter what you do, the rhythms are still there: the tempo and the heartbeat ... until I left, and I went to college and everything disappeared.

When I first arrived at university, I felt lost. And don't get me wrong -- sometimes I loved it and it was great, but other times, I felt like I had been left alone to fend for myself. It's like I had been taken out of my natural environment, and put somewhere new, where the rhythms and the harmonies and the form had gone away, and it was just me --

silence and my melody. And even that began to waver, because I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't have any chords to structure myself, or a rhythm or a beat to know the tempo.

And then I began to hear all these other sounds.

And they were off-time and off-key. And the more I was around them, the more my melody started to sound like theirs. And slowly I began to lose myself, like I was being washed away. But then the next moment --

I could hear it. And I could feel it. And it was me. And I was here. And it was different, but not worse off. Just changed a little.

Music is my way of coping with the changes in my life. There's a beautiful connection between music and life. It can bind us to reality at the same time it allows us to escape it. Music is something that lives inside of you. You create it and you're created by it. Our lives are not only conducted by music, they're also composed of it.

So this may seem like a bit of a stretch, but hear me out: music is a fundamental part of what we are and of everything around us. Now, music is my passion, but physics also used to be an interest of mine. And the more I learned, the more I saw connections between the two -- especially regarding string theory. I know this is only one of many theories, but it spoke to me. So, one aspect of string theory, at its simplest form, is this: matter is made up of atoms, which are made up of protons and neutrons and electrons, which are made up of quark. And here's where the string part comes in. This quark is supposedly made up of little coiled strings, and it's the vibrations of these strings that make everything what it is.

Michio Kaku once explained this in a lecture called, "The Universe in a Nutshell," where he says, "String theory is the simple idea that the four forces of the universe -- gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the two strong forces -- can be viewed as music. The music of tiny little rubber bands." In this lecture, he goes on to explain physics as the laws of harmony between these strings; chemistry, as the melodies you can play on these strings; and he states that the universe is a "symphony of strings." These strings dictate the universe; they make up everything we see and everything we know. They're musical notes, but they make us what we are and they hold us together. So you see, everything is music.

When I look at the world, I see music all around us. When I look at myself, I see music. And my life has been defined by music. I found myself through music. Music is everywhere, and it is in everything. And it changes and it builds and it diminishes. But it's always there, supporting us, connecting us to each other and showing us the beauty of the universe.

So if you ever feel lost, stop and listen for your song.

Thank you.