Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Your Brain on Music

David Levitin's book 'This is Your Brain on Music' was heavily discussed on the viola list when it came out just under a year ago (the link leads you to the associated website). It may have been the 'Mozart effect' debate or it may have been the 'old dogs can't learn new tricks' debate.

David Levitin was a musician, sound engineer and record producer before academe beckoned. He now runs the Laboratory for musical perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal (strange how often people refer to McGill without specifying the location...).

The basic question he tries to answer is 'why does music move us?' Not sure that he totally succeeds in answering it, but perhaps that's not the point. He certainly outlines the latest research in this field, which is a mixture of physical brain research and psychology.

Since the audience of the book won't be all highly trained classical musicians he uses many examples both of classical music and also of pop and rock music. The latter two are rather meaningless to me. When I see mention of 'Stairway to Heaven' all I can think of is Rolf Harris and his what-do-you call-it board - but I don't know the tune (I think). But never mind.

To address as wide an audience as possible he begins by discussing music, rhythm etc, expectation, and the interaction of mind and music, involving also memory (eg that of pleasant associations with particular pieces of music - 'it's our song'). This leads the more experienced musician reader into a deceptive sense of security - hey, this is an easy read!

Then it gets technical, oy veh! It goes into brain anatomy, frontal lobes, the cerebrellum, mentions neurons and synapses and how things are connected, talks about the different levels of brain activity - eg the auditory centre which simply processes the sounds and other areas which organise the sound into meaning based on previous knowledge and experience (whether it's speech, music or the sound of the car crash outside on the road). Apparently the brain, when observed in a scanner, fires on all cylinders when hearing music. Which is good news because if you get a serious bump on the head chances are that your ability to deal with music may be compromised but rarely totally destroyed, unlike speech, for example. Still it is written quite accessibly; it's just that I find the different technical names for the parts of the brain hard to deal with - maybe a couple of little maps of the brain, horizontally and vertically, would have helped.

His discussion on 'talent' is very interesting. People tend to think that musical talent is inborn, but actually he suggests that while certain children pick up skills faster than others, and are better at identifying patterns than others, much of the musical prowess lies in the roughly 10,000 hours of work they have to do to get there. I'm inclined to agree, and I suspect that also the home environment plays a strong role. A child who picks up manual skills quickly, understands musical patterns AND is encouraged at home is more likely to become a musician than one where the parents whinge every time the child picks up a fiddle. And in which homes are children more encouraged to pick up an instrument and to practise it? In the homes of existing practicing musicians, who can also supervise practice, making it more efficient. Though if the child is not interested, that is the end of that, regardless of encouragement. In addition I would suggest that the child needs to have the self-confidence to express their emotion (whether it's verbally or in the playing of music) - again a tender plant easily snuffed out by parental disapproval - otherwise he or she will just become a technical musician , but not a musical one. Skills and intelligence are good, interest makes it better, but parental approval and support is essential.

On the link between intelligence and music (eg the 'Mozart effect') Levitin suggests that experiments showing that music increases intelligence were flawed. I suspect that the causality of successful musicians being highly intelligent is not because of the music, but because of the intelligence - their ability to identify patterns helps them to become better musicians. Though if a child receives musical education early, would they be able to transpose their ability to spot patterns to other fields?

Discussing the liking of certain types of music, Levin first suggests that much of this is set in the first 20 years of life, though people may change and develop a little beyond that. I remember being told as a child that 'this music is too difficult for you', so for many years all I had was a diet of Mozart and Bach (pop music did not happen at home). Some of the difficulty may have lain in my total inability to sit still in a concert hall, and music beyond Mozart is longer. But having seen children in concerts of complex contemporary music I am not so sure about feeding children a diet of particular pieces of music - I would let them hear anything, whether it's new or old (pop music .... ask me another, though my son who at boarding school was exposed to all sorts of music has developed a very interesting and sophisticated musical taste).

Leviting goes on to suggest that in general the liking of particular pieces of music is linked to levels of complexity (though he appreciates that this is not the only factor). Different people have different thresholds for levels of complexity; what appears trite and trivial to some, is much appreciated by others. Contemporary music with its dissonances, sometimes to the level of painful, and unexpected turns can be so challenging that it turns people off (though on the other hand, we don't hear it enough to become familiar with it). He says that people have a certain safety threshold beyond they may not cross. Well, yes, though there may be all sorts of reasons. When I lived in Scotland and could not afford to go to many concerts, I did not buy tickets for any that I might not like (eg contemporary music). In Lithuania tickets are much cheaper (not so much now), and I have been going to lots of contemporary music concerts - there's some interesting stuff around. Now I have many CDs of contemporary music, though I must admit listening to them more when my Ipod is on shuffle.

Levitin suggests that people surrender themselves to music, where they trust a composer with part of their hearts and their spirits, allowing themselves to become more vulnerable with music (and a total stranger) than anyone else. This is an interesting idea. It suggests that music works at a much deeper level than, say, verbal communication. It makes you wonder what the world might be like if people communicated as well with people as they do with music.

It's a very well written book, though it is a bit hard work. He has lovely moments of humour, eg where he discusses that a certain aspect can only be studied by looking at a piece of brain, and most people might not find that very pleasant. It does take a bit of dedication - it might be an idea to take it with you to a place where you have no other distractions.

On the website apparently you can listen to samples of the music being discussed in this book. Not sure that I'll bother to listen to 'Stairway to Heaven'. And oh yes, old dogs have difficulties in learning new tricks - bad news for my piano practice.


Hamilton said...

Nice post, glad you liked it!

Klari said...

Hum, I guess this book will be my auto-post-christmas present, then!
Thanks a lot for the link towards my humble blog.

You played in an amateur orchestra in Bp ?! My violin teacher there wanted to hook me up with an amateur orchestra, but I only joined one when I came back to Paris... ah well..

Happy 2008!

violainvilnius said...

What's BP?

I've played in amateur orchestras in the UK (there are lots of them), Lithuania (there's one), and that Hungarian orchestra (but last year it failed due to lack of interest, so I'm not sure about recommending it for this year....)

Klari said...

I assumed your orchestra rehearsed in Budapest?

With so many music lovers in Hungary, it' surprising an orchestra should fail. Well, there might be too many orchestras. I don't know.

violainvilnius said...

Ah no, it was in Enese, a tiny village between Vienna and Budapest. The orchestra week is a German course, and for some reason the mostly German participants tend to be older (pensioners), so there was a natural loss. There were no paying Hungarian participants - might still be a bit expensive for Hungarians. It's more that the course did not take place last year - maybe it will this year. It was a nice course.