Wednesday, December 17, 2008

know the score

Musicophilia : Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Knopf, 2007
by Oliver Sacks
Chapter 4: Music on the Brain: Imagery and Imagination (pp30-40)

When it comes to musical imagery, there is a large variance from person to person. Some people have little or no ability to imagine a song or to listen to a tune in their mind while others can have a virtual internal concert. The author's own abilities in this regard are limited to hearing, seeing and feeling performances of music he knows well.

Studies beginning in the 1990s show that imagining music can activate the auditory cortex almost as strongly as listening to music can, that imagining music stimulates the motor cortex and that "imagining the action of playing music stimulates the auditory cortex."

Most people have had the experience of 'hearing' music after the music is turned off and the role of expectation and suggestion in enhancing a musical imagery experience, although not fully researched seems to be confirmed by recent studies.

The "deliberate, conscious, voluntary mental imagery" crucial to professional musicians (especially to those with physical hearing loss such as Beethovan) not only involves the auditory and motor cortexes but also regions of the frontal cortex involved in choosing and planning.

Some involuntary musical imagery experiences are triggered by overexposure to a piece of music, while other experiences (the musical fragments or tunes that come after years of not hearing or thinking of them) seem to be triggered by (often subconscious) deep emotional or verbal associations.

Personally, I have always been a little jealous of the people who are able to 'read' a score as if it were a book and 'hear' the music in their head. I clearly remember a fellow undergraduate, who was a conductor and composer and who used to bring orchestral scores with him onto the subway to 'read' in his spare time. I have a small ability to read music in that way (although only with piano/vocal scores - orchestral scores are impenetrable to me), but it requires a lot of concentration on my part and simply listening to a recording while watching the score is much simpler. I've often wondered who is predisposed to this skill? And if it's a skill that's more heavily bestowed upon those who studied piano extensively? And how much effort it would require to be able to read a score in this manner? Or if it's a skill that's even acquire-able without early piano training?

Anyway, the questions raised in this chapter are mostly to do with why we have involuntary musical imagery and with what the connections between emotion and meaning and music are, which are not questions I find particularly interesting - it is enough for me that the mind reacts this way to music and it makes sense to me that there are certain associations that will bring to mind specific pieces of music.

I'd really just like to know how to read a score ...

by Shannon Coates

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