Levitin on Your Brain on Music

Brain scanning technology is quickly approachi...

Summertime for teachers: there is actually not a lot of hammock or beach chair time in it. Summertime livin’ is mostly different for the foods (salads, fresh fruits, grilled everything) and the infrequent visits to school, but it is a time filled with getting a whole lot of ducks in a row for the coming year. Generating a lot of content, revising the old, adding new, reading a lot of books, taking notes, coming up with new stuff. Lots of scheduling of events. Pretty much everything has to be organized and ready to go by the time school cranks up again August 20, and that takes a lot of time and thought. It’s a good thing that I really enjoy this part of the job.

I started a new course last fall for non majors (in music): Creativity in Music, i.e. where does music come from, i.e. improvisation and composition. There is no textbook on the subject that I could simply pick and and teach from (unlike, say, that well-worn path of a Music Appreciation class). That makes for a lot of work. It also gives me a lot of choice/leeway on what to talk about.

We had two lectures and one discussion/workshop session per week. My idea was to combine the academic (facts, etc.) in the lectures with the experiential in the workshop sessions, to find ways of giving the students an up-close-and-personal view of what it is like to improvise and compose music. It’s a tricky task since I can’t assume that they can read music. But there are a lot of things you can do.

Cover of "This Is Your Brain on Music: Th...

I seem to be drifting into a description of the whole course. I’d like to do that, but my original intention was to give you some quotes and paraphrases from one of the topics covered in the course: The Brain and Creativity; the quotes below are taken from Daniel Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Enjoy! (better yet, get the book and read the whole thing).

Man visits village in Lesotho in Africa. He was asked to sing with them. He said “I don’t sing.” They said, What do you mean? You can talk!” It was as odd to them as if he said he didn’t walk when he had two perfectly good legs. The Sesotho word for singing was the same as for dancing – no distinction because it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.

A couple generations ago families played music together. Now the emphasis is on skill and technique – it has become an activity reserved for a few.

What is the evolutionary value of music?

Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization and you have music  that no one wants to listen to. Ex.: how long can you listen to your child practice scales?

Even a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced and more efficient than for those who lack training. Music lessons teach us to listen better, and they accelerate our ability to discern structure and form in music, making it easier to tell what music we like and what we don’t like.

On average, successful people have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. They keep going; they don’t quit. Learn from them and keep going.

Music predates agriculture.

It is only in the last 500 years that music has become a spectator activity – the thought of a musical concert in which some experts performed for an audience was unknown through the rest of history.

It would be shocking at a classical concert if people got up and clapped and hollered as at a James Brown concert – but that is closer to our true nature. The polite listening response, in which music has become an entirely cerebral experience (even music’s emotions are meant, in the classical tradition, to be felt internally and not to cause a physical outburst) is counter to our evolutionary history. Children often show the reaction that is true to our nature; … we have to train them to behave “civilized.”

Humans need social linkages to make society work, and music is one of them.

Music exercises the brain to make it ready for the demands of language and social interaction. Since it lacks specific referents, it is a safe system to express mood and feelings in a nonconfrontational manner.

Rhythmic sequences optimally excite recurrently neural networks in mammalian brains… Musical novelty attracts attention and overcomes boredom, increasing memorability.

As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. The combination of the two – e.g. a love song – is the best courtship of all.

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