Source: The Mind of an Artist
Retrieved: December 2, 2011, from Podcast from the Library of Congress with Michael Kubovy and Judith Shatin
This video from the Library of Congress features cognitive psychologist Michael Kubovy and composer Judith Shatin speaking about the mind of the artist, and how composers incorporate extra-musical elements in their compositions. Both Michael Kubovy and Judith Shatin are from the University of Virginia.
Professor Kubovy spoke first, and his focus was on meaning in music. According to Kubovy, this topic has a long history, and a tarnished one at that, since music with extra-musical connotations are often considered less than pure. Kubovy proposed just the opposite - that musical works without extra-musical connotations are extremely unlikely to work.
Language priming experiments show that there is an associative network between meanings in our brain. If concept A has a close association with concept B, our brain’s processing response from A to B is faster. For example, when one hears the word ‘cat’ followed by the word ‘meow’, our brain processes ‘meow’ quickly because ‘cat’ and ‘meow’ have a close association. In a sense, by saying ‘cat’ the brain has been primed to hear the word ‘meow’. If the brain heard the word ‘cat’ followed by the word ‘refrigerator’, the processing of ‘refrigerator’ would be slower because there is not a clear association between ‘cat’ and ‘refrigerator’.
Kubovy went on to speak about event-related potentials, or ERPs. The n400 is a component of ERPs that is elicited by unexpected stimuli, and indicates the amount of processing the brain had to do given the previous context. Kubovy explained that in a language priming experiment, an ERP of n400 or more means the brain did more processing on a word because it was not expecting that word, as in the ‘cat’ example above. An ERP of n400 or less means the brain did less processing because it was expecting the word, as in the cat meow example.
Scientists in Germany did a priming experiment with music. They took a word and primed it with two types of music. The word in question was ‘wideness’, and the first piece of music to precede it was a piece by Strauss. The second piece of music to precede it was an accordion piece. The n400 was less for the Strauss priming than with the accordion music, meaning that there was some association in the minds of the subjects between ‘wideness’ and the music of Strauss.
Experiments like the one above suggest that music and language are more closely related than one might think, which makes sense considering that brain areas activated by language and music overlap quite a bit. Composer Judith Shatin followed this discussion by speaking about her own compositions and how these issues relate to her work. Her feeling is that whenever one is listening to music, shapes and ideas come to mind. Sometimes sounds can imitate things in the natural world. For example, in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, a flute is used to represent that character of the bird. Why is this, and why does this association seem natural to listeners? Is it due to the register of the flute being similar to the register of many bird songs? There is much to consider here. She continued by playing selections from her own works that in her mind exemplify associations between language and music. The audience listening seemed to agree on the extra-musical associations of her pieces, making it clear that the music language connection is a tangible and important one to consider from a compositional perspective.
As a performer, these ideas ring very true to me, since many extra-musical ideas are brought to my mind every time I play. These ideas can range from associations with tangible things, such as a bird or the wind, to more abstract concepts, such as rates of acceleration or rhetoric devices. Finding the meaning in the music you are performing and communicating that meaning to audiences is, in my opinion, one of the most important tasks of a professional performer.
Yet it is inevitable that at some point musicians will disagree on the meaning of a particular passage, and whenever this occurs I find it very curious. It leads me to believe that many, perhaps most associations are built more from life experiences than from quantitative properties of the music. I often wonder about the most basic musical associations, and whether or not they are natural associations or the result of repeated hearings. A perfect example would be the concept that major music is happy and minor music is sad. Is this really a natural association? If you could somehow find a person who had never heard music, would they react with happy emotions to major chords/keys? Is it even possible to study such a thing? For example, infants may be blank musical slates but they do not possess the language and cognitive skills necessary to communicate the idea of happiness. When I consider the major/minor question, it makes me wonder if I am finding meaning in music or projecting my own meaning onto music.