Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On the brain beat: Cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin talks about music at Butler

Daniel J. Levitin
I wonder if I've heard any one piece of music a thousand times, yet somehow I believed cognitive neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin when he said in a Butler University lecture Tuesday evening: "You can listen to a song a thousand times and still like it."

The surprise in that statement is that our brains also favor being surprised by as well as familiar with input. So why would it be the case that a great number of repetitions (presumably not in succession!) of the same composition — an experience particularly available today when everything is recorded and widely accessible — doesn't turn us off?

Levitin, author of the best-selling "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession" (2006), offered a plausible answer to that question, though it is admittedly somewhat speculative. He said that it is likely that all music we've ever heard is stored somewhere in our brains.

This would mean that the thousandth time hearing something we liked the first time will not be compared to the 999th time we heard it, but to all that other music we've stored. So that favorite, often-heard piece retains its position as a favorite forever because what surprised you delightfully the first time you heard it is still there. Surprise never dies.

The Woods Lecturer, who spoke to a full house at Butler's Schrott Center, made other credible statements in an area of knowledge I'm an infrequent visitor to, though I have read Levitin's book.

#Musical improvisation can proceed from adept performers because scientists have discovered that the part of the brain that's an "active critic" of music is suppressed.  That sounds like ammunition for people who dislike jazz, for instance, but it makes perfect sense that both gifted and novice improvisers need to find a channel directly from their knowledge basis of improvisation at any given moment through to spontaneous "commentary" on it. Their inner critic can make useful judgments later, based on the performer's memory of how he/she did or, more completely, on a recording.

#"Template matches" between a familiar original and an arrangement for vastly different instruments are instantly recognized as the same piece. Levitin illustrated this by playing the beginning of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" in a version by four mandolins. The brain is "an exquisite change detector"  and can adjust without original timbre, identifiable pitch and even all facets except timbre, Levitin demonstrated with several recorded samples.

#"Music uses more of the brain than just about anything else we know of," Levitin said. He proceeded  to illustrate his point by showing a brain scan of the musician Sting. The areas of his brain that were activated as he made music were shown as colored patches. The patches were well distributed all over the brain surface. Levitin explained that aspects of processing music (more while making it than just listening to it) are assigned to different brain areas and are blended to produce our musical experience in a miracle of instantaneous teamwork.

#Twelve-tone music's apparent inability to survive in the broader culture, despite many adept creators and performers of it, may be because it frustrates the brain's need to have expectations satisfied. If those expectations are momentarily blocked or diverted (the "surprise" experience mentioned above), we find the music interesting. If expectations are systematically frustrated, as they are by compositions that treat all 12 tones equally, both understanding and emotional payoff are impossible. Arnold Schoenberg really did "emancipate the dissonance," in other words, but dissonance needs to remain in harness, apparently, to have a role to play in contexts that tend toward consonance.

Expectation may not be everything in music, Levitin wisely counseled.  "We want to be inspired," he said. Exactly.  And Levitin's lecture itself accomplished that, putting a scientific footing under the mysteries of music's eternal appeal.