Friday, September 02, 2005

Seeing the Music

A couple of weeks back I came across this interesting article published in the UK on music therapy. The article caught my interest with its mention of Paul Robertson's work on music and the mind:

Paul Robertson, the former leader of the Medici Quartet, promotes the relationship between music, the mind and emotions, and says that music may offer a way into the brain when other pathways have become damaged. He cites the case of Stephen Wade, a linguist and amateur composer, who suffered a stroke and can no longer speak, read or write. Wade does not remember a conversation from a few minutes before, but can play complex passages of music. He cannot write words, but is able to write music.

Last year he completed a degree in music composition at Cambridge University. Wade’s story is not unusual; thousands of people lose the ability to process language, but not music. “Music is the underlying structure of communication,” says Robertson. “It is hard-wired into our brains. Neurological research shows that it is not memory that is lost, but the access to it, so music may offer another route in, providing a kind of short-cut.

Then I came across a reference to Robertson in this article on the perception of sound:

"Among many other things, he (Robertson) presents research where the brain of a male, practicing scales and playing Bach on a small keyboard, is x-rayed. One of the most amazing results of this examination is that the part of the brain that deals with listening is inactive while he plays. On the other hand the part which deals with visual impressions is active when he plays Bach (i.e. is creative) but not when he practices scales (a non creative task)....For some reason our minds let us believe that we are hearing when we are in fact feeling or seeing, and that we are seeing when we´re hearing. Why is that?"

Is there not some other kind or modality of listening going on? I think of my own experiences at practice and I partly think it makes sense, but at the same time something doesn't quite ring true. I've alway enjoyed playing and practicing Bach early in the morning and experienced it as a kind of meditative practice. Often slowing the tempo to a crawl, concentrating on "feeling" each note beneath the finger and at the same time "seeing" it as it fits into a larger network of relations.

What's your experience?


Pliable said...

Bart, this is a very rewarding thread. The post Music and Alzheimer's has a number of useful links in it.

M. Keiser said...

It may sound cheesy, but i've been believing this for years, so its great to hear science back it up. I've been recording myself playing for years as a way to truely listen to what i play, otherwise, im afraid, i only have an idea of how im playing. Sometimes im appauled. Those arnt happy moments. Good article!

Hucbald said...

This would definitely have to be "One of those things that makes you go 'hmmmm...'" I know for a fact that I am listening as I play, but I'm not CONCENTRATING on listening: It's passive. That is most likely the response/non-response they are noting in brain activity. Anecdotal evidence would be an outdoor concert I played Saturday: I seldom get to really let my sound system open up (I play nylon string guitar, but an electric nylon string guitar), and I had it WFO. I speciffically remember enjoying the sensation of being bathed in sound as I played in front of my PA, so I was HEARING and experiencing the sound enough to enjoy that sensation. However, I wasn't ACTIVELY listening in a critical way as I would be if, say, I was enjoying a new recording of a Beethoven string quartet. I think they need more data on this: Listening to a familiar recording versus a fresh one. I'm betting the new recording would stimulate lots more activity.

As for the visual/creative activity, since the guitar is highly idiomatic and drastically limits the possibilities of what you can possibly play vis-a-vis homophonic and polyphonic music, the player has to constantly juggle the patterns of the notes on the fretboard in his head and cross-relate those to the number of fingers available, their span, and what order they need to be employed. So yeah, I can see that. Then there's the aspect of emoting the music to communicate it to the audience.

However, after a piece has been deeply memorized through repeated practice, metronome work, and performance, I would think the creativity-type activity would diminish, and with very simple pieces be virtually indistinguishable form scale playing. At least when practicing at home versus performing.

I actually have a problem in this area that I've long recognized: If I'm not performing AT LEAST three times a week, I get very stale no matter how much technical work I do at home. It is simply not possible for me to bring the kind of concentration level to bare on a piece in my practice studio that I can at even a very informal coffeehouse gig. So, I play a lot of goofy little gigs to keep myself sharp. It really is REQUIRED that I have an audience to communicate to regularly.

Well, it's official. I'm rambling. Sorry.