Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music, Emotion, and Prediction: What it Means for New Music

Source: Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes Them Weep?

Retrieved: September 24, 2011, from Podcast with Professor David Huron


David Huron is Professor of Music and head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory in the School of Music at Ohio State University. He is also affiliated with OSU’s Center for Cognitive Science, and is the author of Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Host Steven Mencher interviewed Professor Huron after he gave a lecture on his work at the Library of Congress, for the Library's Music and the Brain event.

In his laboratory of cognitive and systematic musicology, Professor Huron and his research team seek to answer questions relating to emotion and music from the perspective of evolutionary psychology and brain science. Examples of these questions are “how does music evoke emotion?”, “how do people learn music?”, and “how do people of different cultures experience music differently?” Many of the questions that Professor Huron seeks to answer are not new, but traditionally research on these questions was done from a historical or hermeneutical standpoint. Cognitive Musicology uses knowledge about the brain and psychology to seek out a different understanding of these long-standing questions/problems.

In the interview, Professor Huron spoke about some issues that he investigates in his book Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. He discusses the element of surprise, and how it plays such an important role in our experience and appreciation of music. Prediction is an ancient and essential survival tool, and when it comes to sound and the auditory world it is one of the brain’s major preoccupations, according to Huron. When people have heard common musical constructs repeatedly, like for example a major scale, they come to expect those constructs when listening to music. When there is deviation from the standard construct, the brain is immediately aware of it. Huron’s research shows that when listening to music, peoples’ brains are constantly predicting what will happen next, as if this skill of predicting, probably originally used to locate a predator and determine what it will do next, has spilled over in our minds to the esoteric and symbolic world of music. Huron commented that research also shows this may be why people are less drawn to and appreciative of new music, and that although we tend to value novelty highly in our lives and in society, it may not be as important as we thought when it comes to listening to and enjoying music.

Another question that Huron has investigated is why we enjoy listening to music that makes us sad. He remarked that sad music gives people a false psychic pain. A part of the brain has been fooled into thinking that something sad has happened, and it experiences and empathizes with this sadness. But the more conscious cognitive part of the brain knows that everything is alright, and this causes a cathartic experience that his team has been chronicling. Part of the mystery of music is that music is composed of abstract sounds not meant to represent or resemble any of the sounds we encounter in our everyday lives, and yet still these sounds are able to evoke such intense emotional experiences. Huron believes that this comes from thousands of years of listening to sound to try and infer affective states from the environment. Humans are such social animals, and we look to sounds to indicate to us the emotional states of others. This skill has transferred over to abstract sounds as well.

At the close of the interview, Professor Huron spoke about how wide reaching his research is. Although he focuses on tackling specifically musical questions, he uses knowledge from many fields to answer his questions (such as psychology, brain science, anthropology, biology, etc.), and many of the principles and understandings that develop from his research apply to other areas of human life. For example, researchers at San Francisco University’s medical school were interested in the idea of expectation and gratification from Huron’s book, and saw applications of this principle in the study of obesity. Since Huron’s research draws on learning from so many fields, it is not surprising that his findings are useful to so many knowledge seekers.


One of the string quartets that my group has been carrying in our repertoire for the last few years is Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. It is one of the most devilishly difficult pieces in the whole string quartet repertory, both for the performer from a technical perspective, and for the audience from a listening perspective. I remember my first encounter of the piece. Before I worked on my individual part I got a copy of the score and sat down with a recording so that I could follow along on paper as I listened. The piece is about 25 minutes long but for this first hearing it seemed like hours to me, and I remember when the music finally stopped I didn’t even know that the piece had finished. I had to check the track on my CD player, the score had been completely useless to me as a guide to help me follow along and I was utterly confused.

Many performances later, it has come to be one of my all-time favourite works, and occupies a very special and important place in my heart. I will often choose to listen to this over string quartet greatest hits like works by Beethoven or Schubert. Familiarity has helped me to appreciate the piece more, just as Professor Huron argued.

It has also become for me one of the most emotionally powerful pieces that I have ever heard. Although I can’t say that I understand it fully in the theoretical sense (I would be hard pressed to identify the chords I am playing in even the most straight forward movements), I feel I do understand it in some deeper way, in an emotional sense. I often try to quantify why it moves me so, I wonder if it is because Berg’s musical gestures are so inherently emotionally potent that although the chords may be foreign there is still emotion being conveyed in other ways. There are moments in the piece that I find utterly terrifying, or pleasant and sweet, or deeply heartbreaking, so much so that after performing it I tend to be emotionally spent. When planning programs with Berg’s Lyric Suite I always try to get organize it such that the Berg is last on the program, because I cannot imagine listening to a Dvorak quartet after experiencing such all encompassing sadness at the end of the sixth and final movement, largo desolato.

Of course, programming this piece has always been a problem. Even in Europe, the land where the music of Berg and his predecessors originated, presenters we worked with were reluctant to put the piece on a program because they fear it will scare away audiences. People have argued that it is too foreign to the ears of even the more devoted music lovers. Because the piece is so dear to me, I continue to champion it as one of our repertoire staples, but in doing so I have had to think a great deal about the familiarity and how that influences our appreciation of music. After performing the piece maybe 20 or 30 times now it has become a part of my musical language, but I have to constantly remind myself how I felt upon that first listening, how utterly baffled I was, and how the emotion I now feel every time I hear it was completely absent on the first hearing. I need to see where the audience is coming from.

But then it begs the questions: why would I subject anyone to that baffling experience? What is in it for concert-goers? What can I offer to audiences if I am to perform this piece? I must have answers if I am to convince people to hear it for the first time.

One of the things that I have considered in searching for an answer is the art of performance. For those who are not familiar with the music of the Second Viennese School, listening to Berg might be like hearing a poem read in a different language. The words are not recognizable, but is there not more to the experience of a performance? Is learned musical syntax the only way of communicating emotion, or is there also gesture? Stage presence? Tone quality? These are all tools that professional performers are taught, or should be taught, to develop. If I read a poem in a foreign language with no emotional articulation in my voice, completely monotone, the audience would be very justified should they fall asleep. But if I read a poem in a foreign language and impart onto the words all the emotion and meaning that they carry to me in the tone of my voice and in my gestures, then perhaps the audience will have a different experience? They may not understand what has happened, but perhaps they will think ‘I’m not sure why but I feel that I have experienced something sad’. I have certainly experienced this feeling after hearing a great first performance of a new piece. Perhaps a powerful performance such as this would encourage listeners to experience the poem again, or to investigate the grammar of the language or the meaning of some of the words.

So I question, what can David Huron’s research mean to the performer, and how do elements of performing impact his findings? If we play the music as though it has no meaning to us, can we really expect it to have meaning to listeners?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Inner Sparks: Improvisation and the Brain

Anstead, Alicia. (2011). Inner Sparks. Scientific American 304, 84-87. Retrieved September 19, 2011, from Nature Journals Online


Charles J. Limb, hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, and Allen R. Braun, neurologist at National Institutes of Health, wanted to find out what goes on in the brain when musicians improvise, with the aim of gaining a better understanding of human creativity. They conducted a study on highly skilled jazz musicians, who had to play on a non-magnetic MIDI keyboard on their laps while lying inside an fMRI machine. (A system of mirrors let the musicians see their hands without looking down.)

The researchers found that improvisation generally involves the whole brain. But, interestingly, Limb pointed out that an activity shift occurs in the prefrontal cortex; the lateral prefrontal region, which represents a broad area of the prefrontal cortex and is involved in conscious self-monitoring and self-inhibition, shuts down, while the medial prefrontal region, which is associated with self-expression, turns on.

This, Limb explained, is what expert musicians do, while amateur musicians cannot. He believed that if he could understand what actually changes in the brain to decrease conscious self-monitoring, then he might be able to figure out what gives rise to expert improvisation. This, in turn, may carry implications for teaching improvisation in the classroom.

As a classical musician, I have never improvised on stage. Nevertheless, I feel that I can still relate to the findings of this study. This is because I believe that, regardless of whether the music is improvised or not, the best performances are always characterized by a certain spontaneity that captures the listener’s attention. In other words, it does not matter whether the music one hears was composed two hundred years ago, or it is “being composed” at that moment; when this spontaneity is present, one always gets the sense of the music unfolding in the present moment. I think this is where the magic of musical creativity in performance lies.

Unlike in jazz, however, spontaneity in the performance of Western art music comes from a thorough understanding (and accurate memory) of the score. This means that, paradoxically, classical musicians must practice a great deal before they can afford the luxury of being spontaneous on stage; creativity comes at a high price. Furthermore, they are expected to deliver a highly polished performance that also engages the listener, to be faithful to the composer’s intentions, yet also to demonstrate their artistic integrity in their interpretation. It is obviously not easy to accomplish all of this. I believe this is why some aspiring young classical musicians find themselves in the state of mind of conscious self-inhibition that is unfavourable to self-expression. They become too aware of the weight of hundreds of years of tradition on their shoulders and start doubting if they are “good enough”.

Two years ago, I still vividly remember playing Beethoven’s last piano sonata for a visiting music professor from Germany who had studied with Wilhelm Kempff (a pianist renowned for his interpretation of Beethoven) in a master class setting. Although I had practiced a lot, I got terribly nervous when I had to play and, consequently, made numerous mistakes. But the worst part was that I could not let the music pour forth from me the way I knew I could.

The next day, my teacher, who was also present at the master class, told me something that I have never forgotten. She taught me that, as a performer, one should never try to be “right” or “perfect”. Rather, one should strive, above all else, to be an artist. From years of experience, my teacher understood quite well the danger of self-inhibition and the crucial need to develop the power of self-expression in a creative endeavour. It was indeed interesting to read about a scientific study that confirms what experienced musicians already know.

The Brain and Synesthesia

Source: Wednesday is Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia
Retrieved from: podcast with Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, MD

Summary:  Synesthesia is an involuntary joined sensation that some people are born with. Two or more of their senses are coupled i.e. a voice is heard but is also seen, felt or tasted.  One in twenty-three people have some kind of synesthesia, the most common being that days of the week and months of the year are colored. One in ninety people perceive letters, numbers or written symbols as colored.
Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, Professor of Neurology at George Washington University has studied synesthesia for more than thirty years. He has witnessed a paradigm shift in neuroscience during that time that has made his work in synesthesia more widely accepted. Thirty years ago, brain theory said that the brain was organized into modules that didn’t work together i.e. visual module, language module, hearing module. This theory made synesthesia impossible, even denied. Now neuroscientists know that the brain is massively cross connected and in a synesthete’s brain, there is an increased activity in the wiring.
Synesthesia is prevelant among creative people. Cytowic discusses notable composers and performers who were synesthetes: Franz Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Eddie Van Halen. Itzhak Perlman, world renowned violinist for example, draws his bow over the G string he sees as forest green, and the A string as red. He has found synesthesia is common in blind people, Stevie Wonder case in point. Olivier Messiaen perceived sight and sound in a bi-directional manner which in his words “allowed music to write itself” like in his work The Orange Red Rocks from Canyon to the Stars. He used clusters of notes he perceived as colors. He saw three colors of chords: simple – red, green, blue; pairs – blue-violet, red-orange; overall color flecked or speckled with opalescent colors in them.
Synesthetes love color, and will describe what they see in exacting, minute detail. The theory is that the V4 area of brain, the color area, is not being stimulated optically but with other senses. That is one explanation as to why their sense of color is so precise and why they often see ugly, odd colors.
Cytowic is convinced that by understanding the perceptual condition of synesthesia, we’ll find the neurological basis for how the brain represents metaphor. He and other researchers are searching for the synesthesia gene, a gene they believe is for metaphor and creativity, a gene that hyperconnects disparate things.
Reflection: For nineteen years, one of my sons has played notes that he sees in color. On road trips he sees highway signs like rainbows. Last year, he felt some relief as he learned in a psychology course more about synesthesia and that he wasn’t weird after all. Other people saw the world this way too. One of the first things he did was to type out the alphabet the way he saw it. This was not without frustration, as synesthetes see precise colors, hues of yellow or orange, and the color palette he used wasn’t absolutely precise. But it was close enough to help me understand what goes on in his brain perceptually with letters and words. What has stood out to me over the years is his consistency in the patterns. He has always seen A as red whether he plays it on his violin, sees it on a road sign or in a book. I’ve never seen JR as weird, only fortunate – to be able to see the world in such a unique way opens him to creative possibilities that will enrich us all.