What’s So Amazing About Really Deep Thoughts?

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

Of course, this has only come to be socially relevant over time. In smaller, pre-industrial societies, the low level of specialization meant that everyone participated in the culture’s music, and thus the differentiation between the brains of musicians and non-musicians was rendered moot by the fact that there were no non-musicians. Even in the much more specialized Classical and Romantic eras in Europe, whose composers commanded a vast repertory of arcane knowledge, both the patrons and the audiences were overwhelmingly indoctrinated into musical thinking. Only in a society like that would it have been so profitable for Liszt to make piano transcriptions of other composers’ works, since it was more likely that intended listeners would be able play through a piece themselves than hear another group perform it in concert.

But now, composers absorb more techniques and sounds than at any other time in history—the continuing specialization has led to a knowledge base that’s fully comprehendible to only those who are closest to it. Yet, on the other side is the startling fact that it is now possible and even common for a member of society to be non-congenitally unmusical. If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. But it can also feel artistically hollow, since we’re not using our full expressive capacity out of fear of alienation. More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.

This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.

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13 thoughts on “What’s So Amazing About Really Deep Thoughts?

  1. mryan

    That explains a lot . . .
    . . . but why do we have to choose one or the other? Why can’t we have it all? There is a time and season for every purpose under heaven. Why can’t we incorporate seasons into our lives for accomplishing both ends?

    Yes, I am dominantly a populist, but I also believe in value and importance of free experimentation. Very loosely speaking, a composer is like Moses when he went into the mountain to speak with God (I’m borrowing this analogy from Schoenberg if you didn’t know). When he came back it isn’t likely that he burdened the people with everything that had been revealed to him, only what the people could bear (and they had a hard time with that) – after all, he was up there 40 days.

    When we go into our compositional mounts, so to speak, (universities and other enclaves of educated musicians) we can be a lot more free and experimental. At the same time, don’t we have a responsibility to society to take what we’ve learned and try to present it to them as well, in a way that they can understand it?

    Why do we have to be one or the other at all times? There is a certain challenge to doing both, but when have we, as a group, been afraid of a challenge?

    Reply
  2. rtanaka

    One interesting to point out is that the way we learn to attach meaning to sounds is primarily through visual means — say, when you hear the sound of hand clapping or the blow of a car horn, you usually can’t help but imagine a picture in relation to it. Timbres generated by electronic music doesn’t tend to fair so well because the “newness” of the timbre usually fails to establish a connection with the audience’s understanding of the sound. Does Sacks talk about this in the book?

    Say, the boop boop sounds that you hear from early synthesizer musics…as standalone music it didn’t fair so well, but became popular in the film industry to depict a sort of that cold, alien, and distant distant feeling. For my generation who grew up with video games, the connotation is different because of the visual images that we learned to correlate the sounds with…so when I hear some of these older music concrete and sci-fi films, I can’t help but to think of it as being somewhat comical, even though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the intent.

    Either way I think we can agree on the fact that education is important to remedy this problem. Give the people direct, hands on experiences, and the sounds will automatically gain some meaning. But keep in mind that the introduction of new vocabulary usually evolves out of a necessity to reference something that exists in real life — the term “laser” for example, was invented in order to point at something that previously had no concept. It survives because people have found it a useful description of something. Maybe back in the day if you were the King you could force your servants to use new standards (like foot and inch…what a terrible, arbitrary system!) but in today’s world I think we’re past that sort of thing. As with theory, language evolves through culture and practice.

    The thing is that by sticking to your own kind (musicians) you’re sort of creating the same sort of fear of alienation that you talked about in your post — you’re pretty much doing the same thing, except directed toward a different audience and means of economic viability (government and patronage, as opposed to capitalism).

    I think experimentation is fine, but there’s such thing as the Occam’s Razor — if something can be said in more simplified terms, then it should. If a composer is going to use new vocabulary then there ought to be a reason, or referring back to what I said above, the ability for the audience to “connect” with it. Music can go in various different ways, but you really have to know who and what you’re writing for…

    Reply
  3. MarkNGrant

    Unless I have either totally misread Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia or am totally misreading your analysis, Sacks does not say that the brain’s musical capacities are limited to so-called “musical” people. On the contrary, his book makes it clear that it is a physiological, congenital endowment of the brain distributed evenly and universally throughout the population. He writes, “one does not need to have any formal knowledge of music– nor, indeed, to be particularly “musical” – to enjoy music and to respond to it at the deepest levels. Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed.” His book in its entirety seems to be a demonstration that musicality is an innate neurological capacity, even in the apparently non-musical. I’m not sure I follow how that supports your argument. As I read Sacks (and he may have said something different at the Chamber Music America conference), regardless of differences between the brains of developed musicians and those of laymen, we (more profoundly) all do share a common “musical” neurological organization.

    Reply
  4. rtanaka

    As I read Sacks (and he may have said something different at the Chamber Music America conference), regardless of differences between the brains of developed musicians and those of laymen, we (more profoundly) all do share a common “musical” neurological organization.

    Yes. When you boil it down, most of our brain activity can be reduced to electrical impulses in the brain, and this is common to every human being. How its used and developed (i.e. how the brain becomes networked and mapped) may differ from person to person, depending on their physical health and experiences, though. But as far as I know, and correct me if I’m wrong here, there’s no evidence to show that musician’s brains are somehow hardwired to be different than the rest of the population. Sacks may have claimed that there are noticeable difference in the types of brain activity when musicians are actively engaged in music, and I can believe that, but it does not discount the fact that this too, is a skill that can be acquired by anybody who has a fairly functioning brain.

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  5. rtanaka

    Also, if there was such a gap in physical difference between musicians and non-musicians, why is it that other musical mediums (jazz, pop, world) don’t suffer the same type of alienation than that of new music mediums as well? I seriously doubt that Sacks would go onto make a claim that some how classical musicians have some sort of particularity to them that makes them somehow alien to the rest of the population.

    Reply
  6. Trevor

    Unless I have either totally misread Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia or am totally misreading your analysis

    I think you are misreading my argument, Mark, which is likely my fault so I’ll attempt to clarify. My point was not at all that one needs to have had the training necessary for neurological reorganization to truly “appreciate” music. Indeed, you are correct in your assessment of the crux of his argument, that we all experience it very deeply.

    However, there is an organizational difference there, based on the three books I’ve read about it – Musicophilia, Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, and Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music. One relevant portion in the Levitin starts on page 220; doesn’t really make sense for me to type out the entire couple of pages here, but suffice to say it goes into detail about the ways that musicians have different brains (in response to the question of whether music “makes you smarter”). I think there’s other passages to this effect as well. Mithen’s work – which I don’t have in front of me, since I give this incredible book out to anyone I can – really is only concerned with music and language, but if memory serves he notes that musicians have a much higher concentration of neural networks between the music centers of the brain and the language centers. Sacks I believe just alludes to such differing organization in his different stories, but stated it more concretely at CMA.

    But back to the point, I don’t think that non-musicians have no appreciation for music, just a different appreciation than those of us who have dedicated ourselves to the study of the less common aspects of it. To take an example from my own perception: I think a triad built on the 9th, 11th and 14th overtones is stunningly beautiful, and imbued with meaningful potential. I also know from experience that 90% of the non-musicians I’ve played it for find it to just be “out-of-tune” and “weird”. If I’m writing a piece and arrive at a point where that 9/11/14 chord will be instinctively what I want for that particular emotional/structural/whatever effect, I know that I’m only writing for people who, in whatever way, have had their brains programmed in such a way as to have an intellectual understanding of them that will allow them to be open to, if I have done my job correctly, the possibility of affecting them in the way that I want to. The fact that they can be affected doesn’t have to do with their musicianship, but what they can be affected by seems to. This is naturally just anecdotal evidence on my part, but this persistent observation seems to have a possible explanation in neurological study. From my own perspective, if I back away from my 9/11/14 chord out of a fear of not being understood by more people, then I’m not actually saying what I want to say.

    Also, just to be clear to everyone, Sacks only said what’s ascribed to him in the first paragraph. The rest is my pontificating on his one point.

    But as far as I know, and correct me if I’m wrong here, there’s no evidence to show that musician’s brains are somehow hardwired to be different than the rest of the population.

    As far as I know, you are correct Ryan. The differences come from education and training, and are most pronounced in musicians who have studied from a young age. There’s no “born” musicians, in other words, except in the way that we are all born musicians, and the different functionality is (as my reading goes) readily accessible to anyone who has put in the work, thanks to the amazing plasticity of our gray matter.

    Reply
  7. philmusic

    “..Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now.””

    But that’s all it is- a perception.

    In my small experience folks love the real thing. Though it is true that much depends on the context of presentation, authenticity is its own reward.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  8. rtanaka

    Phil, what’s your definition of “authentic”? Honest question.

    I think its obvious to most people when the artist is being genuine. It’s surprising how often audiences are willing to overlook technical issues if there is a genuine attempt to communicate. Say, it reminds me of a story someone told me about a 90-year old violinist trying to play Bach. He was in poor health, his hand shaking so much that he dropped his bow several times during the course of the performance. But he simply smiled, picked the bow back up, and went back to playing as best as he could. He received a standing ovation for simply being himself.

    Reply
  9. philmusic

    Perhaps ny comment referred to this:

    “…For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results…”

    I have found that most crowd pleasing classical composers don’t try to pander at all–its just their natural voice. There’s a place for us all.

    Phil, honestly.

    Reply
  10. philmusic

    Perhaps my comment referred to this: “…For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results…”

    I have found that most crowd pleasing classical composers don’t try to pander at all–its just their natural voice. There’s a place for us all.

    Phil, honestly.

    Reply
  11. sblarsen

    Sack’s book is sitting on my desk, waiting to be read, so I can’t comment on it yet. But anyone interested in this area MUST read This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin (Penguin Books). Sacks’ own comment, posted on the book’s cover, is “endlessly fascinating.” Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University whose interest is how music affects our emotions, not simply what parts of the brain it utilizes.

    Levitin maintains that everyone has an innate and amazing ability to process music at a level much higher than one would imagine. By everyone, he includes trained musicians as well as people who claim they are profoundly “unmusical.” Yes, there is a substantial difference between how musicians and non-musicians do this, but his test results will surprise you.

    For example, one study asked random people to sing a pop song. The song had to one that is widely known in only one recorded version (Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” comes to mind, but I don’t remember if Levitin used it). Despite protests of “I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket” from some, almost everybody sang the song at almost the exact pitch and at the same tempo as the original, to a degree of exactitude that Levitin could overlay the recording on the original and have it sound like it was Karaoke.

    Also, he discovered that almost everyone can identify a popular recording in a split second, only from its timbre.

    One of his premises is that musical ability is “hardwired” into everyone’s brain, and must have developed as an evolutionary necessity.

    Anyone interested in music, and in particular, in promoting the cause of music’s beneficial effect on the brain, should read this book.

    Steve Larsen

    Reply
  12. Narak

    Thank you for all you do for music––a most powerful
    “evolutionary parasite.”

    You wrote on Friday, January 11, 2008:
    “More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.”

    Please take a look at what the Music in Education Consortium accomplished: on 21 November 2007, the UK government announced an injection of £332 MILLION just for music and music-education!
    [Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2007/11/22/bmjulian122.xml

    We must emulate Dame Evelyn Glennie, Sir James Galway,
    Michael Kamen, and Julian Lloyd Webber––they spearheaded the lobbying effort which started in 2002.

    While we’re waiting for their counterparts to stand up and lead the way, let’s join fellow citizens who have sent letters
    to ALL presidential candidates regarding arts funding.
    The Americans fot the Arts launched this web page for a very easy way to send letters to the candidates:
    http://capwiz.com/artsusa/nh/issues/alert/?alertid=10155116&type=CU

    The following numbers might be useful when you write your letter.
    Arts funding––per capita:
    –Finland: $53
    –Israel: $17
    –UK/England: $14
    –USA: 48¢ … THAT’S RIGHT, 48 CENTS!

    We also might more effectively get our tax dollars shifted
    towards arts funding if we can solicit the help of NONMUSICIANS especially those at the top of the business, scientific, and education worlds.

    For instance:
    Terry Skwarek, director of the
    Institute for Professional Development in the
    School of Computer Science, Telecommunications and Information Systems at
    DePaul University in Chicago:

    “It seems that musical aptitude is one of the strongest predictors of success in a technical position. The highest scores on the admissions test and best performers have been people with a background in music . . . There seems to be a high correlation between musical ability and reasoning skills,”

    Oliver Sacks, Professor of Clinical Neurology & Psychiatry
    Columbia University:

    “…music occupies more areas of our brain than language does––humans are a musical species.”

    Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor,
    Neurobiology & Physiology, Otolaryngology ,
    Communication Sciences and Disorders
    Northwestern University:

    “Increasing music experience appears to benefit all children — whether musically exceptional or not — in a wide range of learning activities…

    Our findings underscore the pervasive impact of musical training on neurological development. Yet music classes are often among the first to be cut when school budgets get tight. That’s a mistake.”

    Gottfried Schlaug, Assistant Professor of Neurology
    Harvard University:

    “…the front portion of the corpus callosum––the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres––is significantly larger in musicians than nonmusicians, and particularly for musicians who began their training earyly”

    Laurel Trainor, Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour
    McMaster University:

    “This is the first study to show that brain responses in young, musically trained and untrained children change differently over the course of a year. These changes are likely to be related to the cognitive benefit that is seen with musical training.”

    If you want more info, please feel free to get in touch with me: Jaime S. Austria: jsaustria2@earthlink.net.

    You may also want to check out this blog:
    http://elsistemanyc.net/

    Reply

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