Google+ Badge

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Your Brain On Music

Many thanks to my brother, Phil, for sending me an article. Phil and I have discussed this topic before, usually exhausting ourselves with diatribes and finding few words to accurately address the crux of the topic. Maybe the beer and wine had a little to do that. Anyway, this article certainly helps our understanding.   

Pam Belluck's article "To Tug the Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons" (The New York Times, April 18 2011) is a very insightful excursion into the musical brain. As I read this article, I found myself nodding in agreement with point after point. Just how does music pull our hearts? Researcher are looking for this answer.

These scientists are trying hard to understand and quantify what makes music expressive. That, in itself, is pretty heady stuff, and some of the findings shed light on the integral workings of music. Daniel J. Levitin, director of the laboratory for music perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal, began puzzling over musical expression in 2002. He is also the author of the best seller This Is Your Brain on Music (Dutton, 2006).

Levitin has also produced, engineered, or consulted artists like Steely Dan, Blue Oyster Cult, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, and David Byrne. He, among others, is publishing amazing information concerning the effects of music on the brain.

According to Belluck's article, "the results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool."

For example, research contends  that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or when we sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. The brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians. And, importantly, what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns.

And, it's not just changes in volume or changes in timing that make a difference. People desire an entirely human element in music. 

Paul Simon says this: “I find it fascinating that people recognize what the point of the original version is, that that’s their peak. People like to feel the human element, but if it becomes excessive then I guess they edit it back. It’s gilding the lily, it’s too Rococo.”

The element of surprise in music serves expression. Famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma cites this importance. He asks us to imagine he is playing a 12-minute sonata featuring a four-note melody that recurs several times. On the final repetition, the melody expands, to six notes.

“If I set it up right,” Mr. Ma said in an interview, “that is when the sun comes out. It’s like you’ve been under a cloud, and then you are looking once again at the vista and then the light is shining on the whole valley.” But that happens, he said, only if he is restrained enough to save some exuberance and emphasis for that moment, so that by the time listeners see that musical sun they have not already “been to a disco and its light show” and been “blinded by cars driving at night with the headlights in your eyes.”

So, Dr. Levitin’s results suggest that the more surprising moments in a piece, the more emotion listeners perceive — if those moments seem logical in context. “It’s deviation from a pattern,” Mr. Ma said. “A surprise is only a surprise when you know it departs from something.” This surprise could be very slight but inherently important or it could be huge and actually a fakeout.

Rosanne Cash believes that emotion in music depends on human shading and imperfections, “bending notes in a certain way,” Ms. Cash said, “holding a note a little longer.” She said she learned from her father, Johnny Cash, “that your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.” Nuances can be very important.

Edward W. Large, a music scientist at Florida Atlantic University scans the brain to find activity linked to musical emotion. He believes that music affects certain brain regions that include language areas. He says, maybe musical listeners are “tapping into empathy as though they're feeling an emotion that is being conveyed by a performer on stage while the brain is mirroring those emotions."

Anders Friberg, a music scientist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, finds that the speed patterns of people’s natural movements match tempo changes in music that listeners rate as most pleasing. “We got the best-sounding music from the velocity curve of natural human gestures, compared to other curves of tempos not found in nature,” Dr. Friberg said. “These were quite subtle differences, and listeners were clearly distinguishing between them. And these were not expert listeners.”

The ability to keep time to music appears to be almost unique to humans. Both the Levitin and the Large studies found that the timing of notes was more important than loudness or softness in people’s perceptions of emotion in music.Changes in the expected timing of a note might generate the emotional equivalent of “depth perception." Even subtle timing differences may be critical. 

Michael Leonhart, who played trumpet and produced for Steely Dan, says he thinks “the ears of most people have started to become less sensitive to dynamics” as music recordings crank up the volume and “the world has become a louder place.”

And, Geoff Emerick, a recording engineer for the Beatles, says: “Often when we were recording some of those Beatles rhythm tracks, there might be an error incorporated, and you would say, ‘That error sounds rather good,’ and we would actually elaborate on that. “When everything is perfectly in time, the ear or mind tends to ignore it, much like a clock ticking in your bedroom — after a while you don’t hear it.”

As we know, science has not figured out how to measure other elements of musical expression, including tone, timbre, harmonics and how audience interaction changes what musicians do. How all musical elements work together is still considered pretty magical. Some things about music are understood in depth and in consensus; however, much still mystifies. The brain is yielding information. Still, the human heart knows the full story.

Here is the wonderful article. Please read it. Thank you. 

Post a Comment