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Fiction Science Fiction

Musical Dissonance

Alex opened her mouth to sing. A cacophony of notes streamed out of her throat, as if someone had dropped an armload of pots and pans in the kitchen.

Freddy put his guitar down and glared at her. “You’re singing off key again. This isn’t going to work. We have our biggest show in a month and you need to be able to sing.”

Alex shook her head vigorously. “It’s not me! Your guitar must need a tuning.”

“It doesn’t.” He pursed his lips at her.

“I think you should take some days off.” suggested Caitlin, the percussionist.

Alex scowled. She didn’t need days off, she needed her off-kilter world to right itself again. The problem wasn’t Freddy’s guitar, although she’d love to believe it was a prank he was playing on her. Serious and brooding, he wasn’t the pranking type.

“You guys can’t get rid of me that easily. I’ll be back.” She threw back her long, golden hair and stalked out of the room, teetering on her heels.

It had started on her 40-minute walk to the rehearsal room that day. Her walk was her daily escape to her alternate world, when she could daydream to the tune of the day, practice singing, or create her next composition.

That day was different. The first song, an R&B number, sounded as though a cat was yodeling while being shaken simultaneously. Alex restarted her phone three times. The Beatles song she played next sounded like the Beatles had swallowed helium and were riding in a very bumpy tractor while belting out tunes.

After leaving band practice, she went to her family doctor. “Doctor, can you examine my ears? I can’t hear music properly. It’s urgent.”

Dr. Cole examined her ears thoroughly. “Alex, I don’t see anything wrong.”

“Doctor, please. Up until a few days ago, I could play the guitar, the piano, and sing in three octaves. Now I can barely get out a single note. My band has a huge performance that I have to be part of. We could get a record deal any day now, since our last video went viral on Youtube. But I can’t be part of any of it unless my hearing is fixed. Can you run some more tests?”

The family doctor shrugged. “I can refer you to some specialists, but it’ll take time.”

A tear dripped down Alex’s cheek. “I don’t have time.”

She showed up to band practice the next morning. Caitlin was singing in her place. Alex banged on the glass door. “Freddy, come out. We have to talk!”

Freddy appeared at the door. Grey wisps marked his mane of spiky black hair. He grabbed her elbow and pulled her away. “Alex, stop. This is embarrassing. You’ve already been let go from the band.” he whispered.

“Freddy, you can’t fire me like this. This band is everything to me. I’ll work ten times harder to make up for the loss in hearing.”

“I’m sorry, Alex. We can’t have an off-tune singer. Caitlin doesn’t have your voice, but she’s singing the notes correctly. I can’t handle the stress of your illness on top of getting ready for the show. Go home.”

Alex stumbled home and fell onto her bed, tears staining her cheeks. Music was the only thing she was good at, and because of that she had firmly rejected all other career paths presented to her. Her life path had been clear at the time, and now it seemed blurred and muddy.

Two weeks later, she sat across from an attractive South Asian woman dressed in a crisp grey suit. “Doctor, thanks for meeting with me. You’re one of the best neurosurgeons in the city. I’ve already seen audiologists, psychologists, ear, nose and throat specialists, and naturopaths, but they haven’t helped me. I’m a musician. If you can’t help, I’ll be on the streets soon.”

“Alex, we ran some tests and I think I know what you have.”

Hope flooded Alex’s veins. “You do?”

“Yes. You’ve been afflicted with amusia.” Dr. Shah said.

Alex frowned. “Amusia?”

“It’s a rare disorder. It prevents people from recognizing familiar melodies, reading musical notation, and detecting wrong or out-of-tune notes. Have you had any head injuries recently?”

Alex shook her head no. She didn’t want to explain the encounter she’d had just before the start of this mess, when an overly enthusiastic sex partner had hit her too hard in the face in the midst of a sexual activity and knocked her unconscious for a few minutes.

“So what are my options?” she asked. “There has to be something we can do.”

  “Traditionally there is no treatment for amusia.” The doctor handed a flyer to Alex. “But for the last few years I have been working with a university and exploring an experimental surgical treatment. It has worked on a few people, but there are side effects…”

  Alex grabbed onto the table with both hands. “I don’t care about side effects. Music is my life. I’m willing to do anything to get this illness treated. When can we do the surgery?”

Dr. Shah had a strange look in her eyes, as if she wanted to say more. Then she seemed to change her mind, and nodded. “Ok, let’s book you in for the next appointment. It’s not a very invasive procedure, so recovery will be quick.”

The surgery was complete. Alex opened her eyes slowly, looking around. Her parents’ worried but relieved faces came into focus, and one of the nurses approached.

“Alex, can you put up three fingers?”

She put up the correct number.

“Can you walk in a straight line?”

She walked in a line.

“Look into this flashlight for me.”

Alex threw her hands up. “I don’t care about all these other checks. I just want to know if I can hear again or not. Is my amusia fixed?”

The nurse pursed her lips, unimpressed at having her procedures stopped. “Of course, Alessandra. I’ll get your phone. You can play something and you’ll find out if your amusia has been fixed.”

“Mom, can you play something? My eyes are hurting.” She handed the phone to her mother.

She closed her eyes as her mother pressed play, hoping with every inch of her being that the notes would be rearranged back into their original order and she would be able to feel the music in her soul again.

As the music blared into the room, she smiled. The cheerful guitar introduction gave way to sweet voices and drums, all harmoniously combining into the melody she had known and sung since she was a child. The familiar sounds and language of music were back. But was her voice?

She opened her mouth uncertainly to sing along with the music, her heart thudding with anticipation. Her voice blared out, strong and steady, perfectly in tune with the music. She was so relieved she dissolved into tears. The entire room burst into applause, and she looked up to see Dr. Shah with eyes glistening.

Her first stop was to band practice. She burst in, interrupting the set.

“What the hell, Alex?” Freddy said.

“Just let me sing, Freddy.” She pushed him aside and went up to the microphone. As soon as she started singing, she saw his face brighten. Relief smoothed out the deep stress lines on his forehead. She smiled. It was finally over. She was back in the band.

As Alex walked to the practice room every day, she mused to herself that things were, in fact, even better than before. It was almost as if Dr. Shah had been able to dust off and tune up the synapses and neurons that communicated the musical notes to one another. The sounds were clearer than ever, the beats more rounded, the singing loud and sharp.

It had been a week that she had been enjoying the new sound quality of the music, and the elevated talent in her voice. She was walking to practice, listening to her latest playlist of electronic music. She walked by a store in Soho that she had never paid attention to before.

She stopped as though she had hit a wall. She honed in on a pair of shoes that were beckoning to her. Her eyes were drawn as if by glue to the white stripe, the cushy sole, the perfectly braided shoelaces. She went inside and bought the shoes without trying them on.

She continued on her walk, swinging the new shoe box from her wrist. She halted again, stopped in her tracks by a green leather purse hanging in the next store window. Entering the store, she approached the purse. She leaned in and sniffed its musty animal scent. She ran her hands over the pebbled leather, savoring the soft bumps under her fingers. A saleswoman came up to her, smiling. “Do you like it? It’s a limited edition.”

        She emerged from the store with three more plastic bags. The sun, previously bright in the sky, was kissing the horizon now. Her phone rang, snapping her out of the haze.

She checked her phone: six missed calls from Freddy. She had missed band practice. She stared at the bags in her hands as if a stranger was holding them.    

        “I’m not feeling well. I’ll have to skip practice today,” she texted Freddy.

At her apartment, she turned one of the bags upside down on her bed. A pink satin jumpsuit. She checked the label and balked – it was more than she paid for rent each month. The next box contained the famous red soled shoes she said she’d never buy. They had cost her another month of rent. The third bag held the green leather purse, the one that smelled so good. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the receipt.

Her apartment floor was completely covered in items that she didn’t intend to buy, didn’t need and couldn’t afford. She pushed the items aside and collapsed on her couch, breathing heavily. 

She went back to Dr. Shah’s office the next Monday. “Dr. Shah, I don’t understand what is going on. I can hear and sing better than ever, but I’ve had no time to participate in my band, because I can’t stop buying things!”

“Alex, this is very rare. The chances were only 0.0005% – so small that I didn’t even bother informing you of the risk.”

“What is it?” 

“Some patients have their hearing improved so much that they can hear not just 100%, but 200% of the sound frequencies they are listening to.”

“So what’s wrong with that?”

“Television and radio have ads and people usually skip through them. A few years ago, advertisers began incorporating the ads into the music we listen to. Most people can only hear about 5% of the messaging, so they only find themselves buying a few things. You are being exposed to 20% of the messaging.”

Alex stood up, spilling her new green purse to the floor. “No wonder I’m buying up all of New York City! Dr. Shah, you have to make it stop. I simply can’t afford to buy all these things that I don’t even want.”

Dr. Shah shook her head. “Alex, there’s no way to get rid of this phenomenon without going back into surgery and reversing the procedure. And then your amusia will come back again.”

Alex paced. “If I continue along this path, I’ll be bankrupt. If I get amusia again, I’ll lose my career. There’s no winning here.”

She approached Dr. Shah and looked her in the eyes, her voice low. “You have to help me. Is there no other option?”

         Dr. Shah pressed her index finger to her chin thoughtfully. “There might be one option. I have some friends in the advertising space. They may know just how to use your talents.”

One year later, Alex sat perched on top of a stool, tapping her foot impatiently as the cameraman set up the next shot. She ran her fingers through the long curls that cascaded to her lower back and admired her sculpted face in the mirror. John-Anthony had done an excellent job on her hair and makeup today. She smoothed out the skin-tight, sparkly gold dress that had been chosen by Lisa, her personal stylist.

She turned to Carly, the production manager. “How long until we shoot? I’m the biggest star on the set – it’s not good to have me waiting.”

Carly patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you on that set soon. I know you’re eager to sing and perform. You’re one of the most sought after female singers in the country in the advertising space. Your passion for the products is so obvious that producers are pulled to you.”

“I don’t care about performing. All I can think about is that fizzy, refreshing Coke that I’ll get to drink soon. Gosh, I’m parched.”

August 31, 2021 18:03

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9 comments

Del Gibson
20:32 Sep 09, 2021

Thank you for sharing this intriguing story. The momentum kept good pace and the lovely twist at the end, when she uses her negative traits to propel her into a positive experience, was a great resolution for your character. Great job and happy writing.

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Nisha Shirali
01:46 Sep 10, 2021

thanks Del. I'm so happy you enjoyed it. Thanks for the comments!

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Dee Wes
17:36 Sep 06, 2021

Very creative...and truly enjoyed.

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Nisha Shirali
00:55 Sep 07, 2021

thanks!!

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Marilyn David
18:21 Sep 04, 2021

Really enjoyed this story. Held me until the end.

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Nisha Shirali
21:51 Sep 04, 2021

I’m so happy to hear that!

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Stevie B
11:48 Sep 04, 2021

That was a tone perfect tale, Nisha. Very well done - pitch-perfect!

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Nisha Shirali
13:32 Sep 04, 2021

Thanks!

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Shamir Tanna
04:38 Jan 10, 2022

Loved it! Amazing job Nisha. Had me really wanting to figure out what was happening and twisting and turning right to the end :). Can't wait for more of your stories.

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