What we can learn from music

Back in 2007, the writer/neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book describing a disease he terms musicophillia. It is when the brain cannot process music. Most people do not suffer from musicophillia. In fact, music is one of the most universally loved art forms throughout the world.

What is it about music to which human beings so relate and respond? Is it about sound, rhythm, form, melody, texture, sonic relationships, the combinations of all of those things, or perhaps something else?

To Sacks, it was a matter of how the brain functions. In a PBS special, they hooked him up to a MRI brain scan and played him a piece by Bach and one by Beethoven. As it happened, Sacks liked Bach better than Beethoven, and his explanation was that his brain activity during the Bach was more stimulated than it was during the Beethoven. He suggested a few questionable conclusions from this. One was that somehow Bach was a better composer than Beethoven, and his brain waves were simply proving his point.

To think that one can claim that Bach was a greater composer than Beethoven, or the reverse of that seems the height of folly, and Sacks was too smart a guy to put his name on that declaration. But, after all his qualifiers, that’s exactly what he thought.

Taste is a personal matter. Some of us like sweet flavors, some of us prefer sour. Some of us like the combo of sweet and sour together, and some of us don’t. There is no right or wrong when it comes to taste. But, and here is the more interesting question, are those neurologists working on brain research today really understanding what came first, the preference or the brain activity?

In Sacks’ case of liking Bach over Beethoven, I would guess, and it’s only a guess, that his taste in music came first, his brain waves followed suit. Because he preferred Bach, his brain sort of said, “Mmm, Bach! How nice!” And then, his brain lit up like a young girl at a Justin Bieber concert. For me, while I love the Bach, the piece he was listening to by Beethoven was more interesting, more expressively powerful, and, if I had to chose between to two masterpieces, it would be the Beethoven hands down. I’m sure my brain would become more active with the Beethoven than the Bach, the opposite of Dr. Sacks.

I think that the late Oliver Sacks’ research over the years was brilliant. And he had a masterful ability to write about his findings. I’m a fan. But, music, that’s a realm that many neurologists have tried to explain without much success. The book This Is Your Brain On Music by McGill University neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, while popular, was a very silly book. His understanding of music is limited to that of an uneducated fan, and he had little knowledge of how music works structurally, something that all composers learn in music school their first year. McGill has a world class music school, and I’m sure he could have gotten a little help from his friends there, or maybe, better yet, taken a few classes in harmony, counterpoint, and form and analysis. If he had, he wouldn’t have ended up saying some of the childish things he said. Again, like Sacks, he tried to link his personal tastes to brain activity and neuroscience, and that weakness discredited his claims and demonstrated his lack of understanding.

Musical tastes develop over time. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused near-riots in the audience. Now it seems tame and mainstream. This tends to be the way new trends in music develop. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was a breakthrough that took getting used to by the audience of that day. Elvis’s first appearances were met with controversy and a storm of protest. The history of music shows that taste in music is often acquired. But, if, as some neuroscientists claim, that somehow the brain will gravitate toward structures that are predetermined by the neurological disposition, how can they explain the ongoing invention of new styles of music, and the fact that the pattern of audience response is often rejection followed by appreciation. Think of the development of reggae, techno rock, rap, minimalism, atonality and electronic music now heard in most Hollywood suspense films?

In 1863, German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz published his groundbreaking book On The Sensations of Tone in which he explains how the overtone series creates its own built-in tension-resolution systems, the underlying structure of tonal harmony. From what we’ve seen from neuroscience, it is hard to imagine those who work in that field know much about Helmholtz’s work. If they did, they would begin to study why the overtone series generates the harmonic structures it does, and why throughout the 20th Century, music has moved from lower to higher aspects of the series, in other words, became more complex and dissonant. The inventions of Debussy and Ravel, followed by the discoveries of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Stockhausen created new systems of harmony and counterpoint. These new methods were directly consistent with Helmholtz’s descriptions of the physics of music.

The brain learns. The brain changes with new experiences over time. That observation leads to this question: is it the brain that dictates what you want, or does what you want dictate to the brain, instructing it to develop whatever connections it needs to accommodate your wishes?

There is a lot of interesting research going on in neuroscience right now. There are a lot of claims being made, often by people who sell programs that assert validity through neuroscience. I have yet to see anything compelling that explains how structure works within people’s lives. Music, one of the most structural of art forms, has yet to be explained by the wonders of neuroscience. Your brain may be waiting for your direction, and after a while, will do what it needs to do to comply to your wishes as much as it can. Perhaps this is art over science.

Posted in Writings.