Monday, November 19, 2012

The Mind of the Artist [podcast]

Kubovy, M. and Shatin, J. (2009) The Mind of the Artist, Music and the Brain. [podcast]. Available at:
Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the brain, and ecstasy : How music captures our imagination(1st ed. ed.). New York: W. Morrow.
Michael Kubovy, professor of psychology, and Judith Shatin, professor of music, taught a course together called ‘the mind of the artist’ at the University of Virginia. It was initiated due to a need to have interdisciplinary courses at the university. The course addressed the stereotype that artists just dump emotions or rebel. Michael Kubovy states that “artists do have minds, it’s not just emotion.” For example, they addressed how society perceives genius. In the past, each person was considered to have been born with a genius that developed their character. In the post-Renaissance era, we associate genius with great talent. According to Kubovy, genius is not a personal property but it involves talent, the gatekeepers and the audience. The professors also examined what art means in different parts of the world. 

Music resembling language
Researchers set up an experiment using a method called priming which Kubovy describes as “the use of less brain power when processing the meaning of a word if you are expecting to hear that word.” For example, participants were told to expect to hear the word ‘wide’ and instead they heard music that sounds wide. On another try they told them to expect the word ‘wide’ and the participants heard the word ‘wide.’ To obtain the results, researchers averaged many traces of EEG. In both cases, the brain activity was the same.

Something sounds like something feels
In ‘Peter and the wolf’ by Sergei Prokofiev, a flute was used to represent the sound of a bird. Kubovy explains that if you set a room with speakers which the participant cannot see and you play him music by a flutist. The participant will likely respond to a question about the position of the speakers as being up high. This shows that there is a relationship between the “quality of the instrument and where they think the sound is coming from.” The bird and the flute correspond because both seem to be high up.
The interviewer asks if we can take a loud drum and say it represents pain. Shatin explains that a really loud drum (more than 120 decibels) can be painful but we cannot necessarily say that a loud drum sounds painful. She illustrates that a fanfare is associated with the notion of a King because we have experienced that many times. She provides many factors that impact whether a sound corresponds to a feeling including the context, the speed, the sound and whether we have experienced that sound before. Researchers have been examining the cross-modal influences (how audio information impacts visual information or bodily feelings and vice versa). Kubovy is interested in how “music [is] embodied in one way or another.”

Shatin dislikes the term extra-musical as it implies that something is added in. Shatin is a composer and she shares her experiences with composing and its narrative shapes. She has come to realize that all music is program music (as opposed to absolute music) and “[embodies] aspects of our experience as bodies as experiencers of the world.”
Kubovy is “studying the cognitive foundations, that is, what mental apparatus do we need in order to perceive music, to understand it.” The brain analyzes musical patterns in certain ways. His particular interest is the issue of ambiguity in the analysis of music. He presents a musical pattern repeated several times and asks participants where the beginning of the pattern is and tries to study what mechanism of the brain is determining what the beginning of the bar is. His results show a “similarity between finding a contour in the visual world and a contour in the temporal flow of music.” They have been able to construct a theory that predicts where the bar will begin and predicts ambiguities. His interest extends to analogies of vision and audition.
His PhD percussion student tried to resolve a debate whether the duration of the sound of a percussion instrument is impacted by the gesture the musician makes with the mallet. So his student recorded musicians who thought they could impact the duration of the sound with their gesture. He let the participants listen to the recordings in two settings: audio and (audio & visual). Participants found a big difference in the duration of the sound when visuals were present and none when it was just audio.

                I find the analogy between vision and audition in the case of the percussion instrument to re-iterate how interconnected and complex mechanisms are in our brain. In a way, the results imply that we not only hear music but see it as well (I do not mean just seeing the physical instruments and the musician, but the music itself). The participants in the experiment did not just perceive that the sound seemed longer but they actually heard it longer. This supports the idea that we can have a very different experience listening to an ipod on our own instead of actually going out to see a live performance or watch a youtube video. In Jourdain’s book ‘music, the brain and ecstasy’ we looked at how reverberations can impact the experience, the findings of this experiment add another dimension to our musical experience, the visual.
                The similarity of brain activity when hearing a word and hearing music that sounds like the word takes us into further exploration of how language and music brain mechanisms can overlap and how the two resemble each other.  I am wondering whether this is a learned behaviour such as how we learn the difference between a major and a minor chord. I would have also liked to know whether the same results would be obtained in different parts of the world and I would be interested in finding out what kind of music they woud use to represent specific words in different cultures.

1 comment:

Amy zampiero said...

Interesting that our visual and auditory perceptions are closely linked when listening to music but work seperately and yet synergistically. When we listen to music and close our eyes immediately imagery appears in our "mind's eye". Where do these images appear from? There are memories in the temporal regions that activiate imagery to say that can be released from the auditory cortex. How do these two senses: sound and sight work together to create such links for learning and emotional arousal?