Monday, September 26, 2011

From Mode to Emotion in Music Communication

Title: From Mode to Emotion in Music Communication
Speaker: Steven Brown
Series: Music and the Brain
Interview Date: March 27, 2009

Steven Brown is the Director of the NeuroArts Lab at McMaster University. As the name of the organization suggests, his lab’s work focuses on the arts and the brain. Brown’s interest in this area grew from his own experience as a pianist and a scientist. Much of what Brown and his students study involves the connections between music and language, music and dance, and music and ceremony.

Music and language are “abstract, conceptual systems for generating meaning” (Brown) which are shown through brain imaging to be separate processes, but speech and song are part of the same system. We speak with melodic and rhythmic properties without realizing it for the most part, although we are more aware of these patterns in tonal languages. Whether we are speaking or singing, we are creating sequences with our voices.

In many cultures, music and dance are almost inseparable. Dancers become percussion instruments by using their bodies (e.g. clapping) and by attaching various noise-makers to themselves. Often, the dancers will generate the same rhythms as the percussionists, and it is this generation of rhythm that Brown has identified as being important in cultures where music and dance are so interrelated.

Music can be much more than a generation of rhythm. It has its own inherent emotional qualities, but is mostly used as a way to push cultural messages. Consider television commercials – almost all include music in some way these days. The way music is used in restaurants, commercials, churches, etc. is closer to the way our ancestors used music.

Western classical music differs from most other types of music in that it is performed for its own sake or for the sake of personal expression rather than as an element of another ritual or ceremony.

Music can elicit many kinds of emotions. In Western classical music, we often perceive minor keys as “sad,” and major keys as “happy” or “less sad.” Contrastive scale types used around the world show that small differences in frequency can create vastly different emotional effects.

There is much to be learned about the connection between the brain and the arts. We do know that music can be used for a variety of purposes and to convey a variety of messages. Steven Brown and his students at the NeuroArts Lab will continue to search for the “why” and “how.”

Gaining some sort of understanding of music from an anthropological and scientific perspective only adds to the richness of our own musical experiences. I have studied these topics from several perspectives in music education and anthropology courses, and it was interesting to hear the information synthesized from the point of view of a music psychologist.

This past weekend, I took a break from the Western classical music world to celebrate my sister’s wedding at a resort campground with friends and family. Late into Friday night, a group of guitarists, hand drummers, banjo players, fiddlers, and more played folk tunes. Saturday afternoon, my sister walked down the aisle to a recording of one of her favourite songs. Saturday night, a D.J. blasted club music for anyone who felt the urge to dance. Sunday morning, a bridesmaid played fiddle tunes while we made plans for a hike to a swimming hole. Music was an integrated part of daily routine, or a part of a ceremony, instead of being a distinct event – music for its own sake.

Part of my training as a music educator (BMus from Ithaca College) included the importance of showing respect for music by never speaking over a recording or a live performance, by always listening actively and intently. Brown offers another perspective. Isn’t music almost always just a portion of a whole cultural experience in day-to-day life?

Those of us who are Western classical musicians or audience members are lucky to be able to have a different way of including music in our lives. It is pretty powerful stuff, as evidenced by its persuasive and emotional effect. The more ways we have of experiencing this cultural force, the fuller that experience can be.

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