Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Mind of an Artist

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.


Karine said...

I had never thought about the associative power of music, but what Mr. Kubovy explained made a lot of sense to me. Listening to music is much like listening to a conversation: the brain is constantly searching to make links between what is heard and what the brain already knows. When we listen to instrumental music, there are no words to direct our thought process, but there are some musical patterns that can resemble sounds perceived in nature. Melody contouring, harmony, tempo, and rhythm can also direct our thought process towards happy or sad memories, as well as triggering different emotions. I believe that every time we are listening to music, our brain searches for links. These can be made in relation with past life events, emotions, or quantifying and analysing data. As musicians, we sometimes listen to music with an objective ear, comparing and analyzing the auditory data, which activates the brain differently than when we link what is heard in the music with our emotions. Each individual possesses a different personal background; therefore I do not think that anyone can experience a musical piece in the same way.

Amber Cunningham said...

Your article brings up important points on the true source of our music associations and the activation of language centres in the brain when processing music. I imagine it would be extremely difficult to prove that the emotional or word associations we make as a result of music are truly inspired by the music and not programmed in over time. I wonder if we might find some answers in looking to different cultures. If we have been programmed to respond to major/minor for example, perhaps searching outside of western music and studying the universal response to a piece composed outside of our familiar tonality might be effective? For that matter, could we test this in atonal music?

Sonya said...

In Bev's blog posting from September, she wrote that her son sees the musical pitch A and the letter A as red because he has synesthesia. I am wondering if he knew the name of the pitch before he started hearing it as red, or if the colour association is based on language. It is difficult to find the source of the connections between music and language, but impossible to deny that they are linked in some way.

Federico said...

An interesting point Sarah made in her blog entry was the distinction between “tangible things” and “abstract concepts.” In the brain, the processing of visual and auditory experiences are closely related. In this sense, I think we can assert that there is a biological basis for the preference of certain types of associations. When listening to a piece that is non-programmatic or not based on a text, we often associate its musical content to “simple” images, as the brain tends to easily associate music with something we saw or can potentially visualize. For example, it is not uncommon to associate a composition with the thought of a thing, an animal, a complex but clearly visible/imaginable process like the creation of the Universe, or feelings like sadness or joy, which can be clearly associated with specific images, colors, and actions.
The association of a piece of music with concepts like freedom or love is much rarer, as these concepts bear a huge amount of significance and nuances, and cannot be easily mapped onto clearly identifiable images.
The specific case of the major key/happiness and minor key/sadness associations is an interesting one, as it does not seem to bear any specific visual mapping, but is widely recognized and accepted. One question I often ask is the following: what if, in the past, the relationship between major and minor (keys, thirds, etc) sounded completely different than it does today? Maybe centuries ago a minor key did not sound "sad" in the same way it does today. Moreover, I imagine that even the concept of sadness was altogether different from ours...

andrea said...

Mr. Kubovy's discussion is very similar to Oliver Sack's chapter: Imagery and Imagination, in his book "Musicophilia" (2007, Vintage Canada Publishers). In this chapter he also references associative connection of music and the brain, through verbal triggers, such as lyrics from a song or even words that trigger a melody or song based on their emotional meaning to the listener. Sacks gives his own examples where words have instantly made him remember a familiar tune or where even feeling a certain emotion was enough to bring a musical image into his mind. Music has the meaning that each listener gives to it, and that's what makes it so powerful in its own unique ways.
The major/minor dilemma is also one that has interested me for some time. I agree that there are certain sounds in nature that mimic these tonalities, thus making major "happy" and minor "sad". Perhaps, this element is as close to us as the human voice? Listening to individuals speak, depending on their emotional state, the inflection in their voice will have a certain tonality, and thus, we learn through our own cognitive processes to associate the similar sounds in music with these vocal sounds. Each culture has its own understanding of what is musically "sad" or "happy" and a language with its own specific set of inflections to accomplish these same emotional characteristics. We are certainly taught how to respond (emotionally) to music within our culture, and in conjunction with Amber's thoughts--studying a universal response outside of a familiar tonality would be a very interesting task. I would guess that emotional responses would be similar among cultures, but different on a global level. As for atonal music, a great inquiry to test......