Alyssa has always heard music when she looks at people. One of her earliest memories is of gazing up at her mother and hearing a vibrant, comforting melody that she will much later identify as Grieg’s Morning. The notes and her mother are both full of optimism and joy: they wrap around her as she falls asleep at night and lift her spirits when she feels sad. Her father sounds like Grieg too, although as she grows older, she will always associate his more menacing presence with In The Hall Of The Mountain King.
Staring pre-school, she is immediately drawn to a girl her age with blonde ringlets and a light staccato tune that trips along in time to the girl’s hops and skips. Her four-year-old self doesn’t need to recognise the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy to know that Jenny is full of mischievous fun or that she has met someone who will be a friend for life.
The music she hears when she is on her own is different again. Slow, dreamy and soulful, it encapsulates her personality. Much as she enjoys her time with Jenny, there is something to be said for solitude and for the peace she feels when it is just her and the delicate melody of her life. As the music entwines itself with her thoughts and emotions, she finds herself humming it aloud, causing her mother to ask whether the teachers at pre-school have played them Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des animaux. When she replies that she hears the music in her head, her mother decides she must start piano lessons, even though she won’t be five for another six months.
Piano lessons are a revelation. The teacher, Miss Oliphant, is a tall, imposing woman dressed in rustling black silk who emits an imposing theme full of deep notes and dramatic flourishes. She listens to Alyssa humming her own tune and identifies it as Le Cygne, The Swan, showing the little girl where to place her fingers on the ivory keys to reproduce the melody herself. It’s the first time Alyssa has heard the music anywhere else but in her own mind and she wonders aloud whether the other pieces she hears can also be coaxed out of this wonderful instrument. Miss Oliphant listens patiently to her new pupil’s pitch perfect rendition of the snippets from Grieg and Tchaikovsky but seems rather taken aback when Alyssa hums the first few bars of L’Élephant, naming them the sound of her piano teacher.
“She’s rather a strange child,” Miss Oliphant tells Alyssa’s mother at the end of the half hour, “but she has incredible potential. She remembers countless pieces of classical music and hums them perfectly – you must have started playing them to her at a very early age.”
Alyssa’s mother looks bewildered. “We don’t really listen to classical music,” she explains. “My husband prefers eighties rock bands.”
For the first time, Alyssa realises that everyone has their own signature tune, but she seems to be the only one who can hear the music.
By the time she is eight, she has passed Grades 1-4 on the piano and is an accomplished performer for her age. Her mother tries to encourage her to enter local music festivals, but after the first attempt, Alyssa always resists. She finds it too confusing to listen to people whose fingers are playing a completely different set of notes to the ones she hears in her head.
School is not without its problems too. Sometimes, she is so distracted by the conflicting melodies she hears all around her, that she is unable to hear the teacher’s questions. Thinking she has a hearing impairment, the school sends her to a doctor. The audiometry evaluation she is made to take doesn’t detect any kind of hearing loss; but when she tells the doctor that it’s the sounds inside her head that make it difficult for her to listen properly in lessons, he mouths the word ‘autism’ at her mother and suggests that Alyssa begin wearing headphones in the classroom. She still hears everyone’s music, but she no longer feels the intrusion of having to listen to the teacher at the same time.
As the years go by, she learns to live with her ability – or rather to hide it from the people who don’t understand it. She hides it from everyone.
She’s sitting watching TV with her parents one Sunday afternoon when her mother mentions that an old black and white film she loves has just started on BBC2. They’ve already missed the beginning and her father changes the channel before the film is over, but fifteen-year-old Alyssa is mesmerised by the haunting music she hears playing in the background as the hero and heroine gaze into each other’s eyes. If only, she thinks dreamily, I could meet someone who sounds like that! She would fall in love in a heartbeat with a man who emanated such oscillating arpeggios.
She’s so used to being the only one who hears properly that she’s amazed when her father asks her mother what the music was and her mother replies that it’s the Rach Two – Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.
“You mean you could hear it too?” Alyssa blurts out.
Her parents exchange worried looks.
She still hasn’t met a man who sounds like Rachmaninoff when she leaves for university a few years later to pursue a music degree. Still, she is hopeful: surely, she thinks, amid so many music students like herself there must be someone else who is aware of life’s rhythm the way that she herself is; but instead of the beautiful classical music she’s hoped for, the young men she encounters resonate with the harsh discords of disappointment and despair.
It is several months before her ear finally detects a long-awaited melody. Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto drifts its way through the campus coffee bar, causing her to turn her head and follow the sound back to the floppy hair and high cheekbones of a beautiful, androgynous boy who smiles at her and beckons her over to his table.
She’s waited for him so long that when he asks her back to his room, she doesn’t say no. She’s often wondered what will happen when she meets the love of her life. Will their signature tunes blend and harmonise into a new piece of music; or will she find her own solfeggietto replaced with a variation on her lover’s theme? So powerful are the chords of Rachmaninoff when he kisses her that she thinks it may be the latter. She loses herself in the music as he removes her clothes and loses himself in her.
The following morning, he barely looks at her, seemingly embarrassed by her presence. How can he reject her like this when she still hears the Rach Two when she looks at him?
After spending days weeping in her room, she finally rings Jenny and finds herself telling her friend her tale of woe.
“I don’t understand.” Jenny’s voice crackles across the inadequate connection. “I know you’ve had an obsession for ages about meeting someone who makes you think of a particular piece of music, but why did you think this boy was going to be your one true love?"
Alyssa starts to stammer as she describes the black and white film and how deeply it affected her at the age of fifteen.
“You mean Brief Encounter?” Jenny says. “Alyssa, you idiot! Rachmaninoff isn’t part of their happy ever after – it’s the music playing in the background when they say goodbye forever.”