Saturday, December 22, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Music - Daniel J Levitin

I haven't learnt music. These days I am deeply attracted to Carnatic music and with my limited exposure, I'm amused at my ability to identify a mohanam , a kharaharapriya or a thodi. I have always thought, of how am I able to do this. Unlike people who have learnt music where they can construct - de-construct the lines to swaras and associate the arohana-avarohana pattern to the appropriate ragam, I can not do that. But I can identify most of the ragams, and how is it possible. It is possible only by referring to my earlier listening and successful comparison to a similar krithi / song stored somewhere within me....

Here is a book that can help you to find some answers to these. It had given me direction on some of the stupid ( not really ) doubts I had..

Daniel Levitin, a neuro-scientist, talks about the way our mind understand music and how the brain processes or participate in processing these information. This book is not entirely on music. It is more on the science of music ( neuro science to be precise). Levitin, before becoming a scientist, was a musician, a sound engineer and a record producer.

The book starts with the basic music theory and explanation of the key concepts and words in the music arena. What is Tone, Scale, Rhythm, Timber , pitch , tempo etc. I found this very useful and informative as a layman on timber. I had always wondered on how does different instrument sound differently, even though they play the same NOTEs and have tuned to the same pitch. I knew that it had to be something to do with the harmonics. It is only now that I found a proper answer that satisfies my doubts. According to him, timbre itself has 3 dimension .. the Attack phase ( when the energy is introduced to the instrument - by bowing, plucking or striking) , the steady state and the flux. If the attack phase is editted out of the instrument ( or the music) , most of the instrument sound similar..!! This also explains to me the principle of "Synthesizers", or the artificially ( electronically) produced sound.

The next chapter is on the Rhythm. Again, the key words are tempo , meter , beats and one can draw parallel to our on "thaLa" systems in carnatic music. The corresponding pictures and charts are as complex as some of the charts given in the concert reviews by my friend Ram.

Interesting observation is on the loudness. Loudness is a psychological phenomenon, or loudness doesn't exist in the world, it exists only in the mind. By increasing the volume of your stereo systems, you are increasing the amplitude of vibration of the molecules, which in turn interpreted as loudness by brain. Why do people like loud music , most of the rock shows are played loud to the thrill and excitement of the crowd. Part of the reason, he says, could be that loud music saturates the auditory systems, causing neurons to fire at maximum rate.

To sum it up, there are 7 major elements into music, which are understood and acted upon by the brain. Pitch, Timber, Key , Harmony , Loudness , rhythm, meter and tempo. The subsequent chapters discussed how does each of these are processed within brain. I don't intend to get into the technical aspect of neurons firing upon listening to the music and which part of brain understand what aspect of music. These are very technical and I haven't studied neuro-science to decipher this fully. However, let me tell you some interesting observation and questions out of these reading..

a) Our brain has powers in processing these information and store them. Brain form predictive opinion about what is expected to come next, and any surprise to this will make us to distinguish the music from others ( and appreciate).. The preconceived idea of what is coming next could be genetics, early listening, similarity with what is already heard ( familiarity , exposure to the style etc). When you go for a rock concert you know what to expect vis a vis a carnatic classical concert. These information are already stored within us and are re-produced at will. Which is why some of the music is ever lasting and one wants to hear them again and again ( they never cease to surprise this part of the brain ?).

b) The concept of pitch , rhythm and scales are alive in every human being. Even if you can't sing with correct pitch and scale you are able to remember the song ( humming to yourself) with absolute clarity on these aspect. Try singing "Happy birthday to you" to inside and see..!!

c) Brain identifies the tonal quality of different instruments and people , if experienced already. Which is why you are able to identify the person on the other side of the phone ( without seeing them), even when he/she is suffering by a bad throat.

d) Brain also stores the associated events in memory along with the music. This is why we can recollect certain events of our life while listening to your favorite music. Same song, repeatedly brings those memories back to you.

e) Though not proven convincingly ( to me at least), there are certain elements of genetics in your music ability. Apart from the ambience , culture and exposure, this is also a reason on why some people are better musically , and other ( like me) are not. Child prodigies are partly natural , hard work notwithstanding..

f) As discussed, different aspect of music triggers different parts of the brain. Unlike the perception, music appeals to both left and right brains similarly. ( I used to joke as other musicians appeal to the right half of the brain and TNS appeals to the left !! ) .

In his chapter "What makes a Musician" he examines how do people become expert musicians ? Musical expertise hasd always been defined as technical achievements - mastery of instruments / vocal. How does this explain the word "talent" ? Is the high levels of musical achievement are based on innate brain structures ( is this talent ?) or are they the result of training and practice ? It is evident that 'talented' person acquire skills faster than a normal person. Different people have different 'talents' or different brain structure. Some people have a biological predisposition towards particular instruments, or towards singing. He says, there may be a cluster of genes that work together to create the component skills that one must have to become a successful musician.

Also, why are some musicians are superior to others when it comes to emotional ( versus technical) dimension of music ? no one knows for sure. So called "bhava" in music being discussed elsewhere is coming to my mind. Stevie Wonder says, he gets himself into the same frame of mind when he wrote the song; he tries to capture the same feeling and sentiment.
Why is that some singing are very likable ? In spite of their technical and other errors, why do people prefer to listen to certain singers ? Why is that whenever, M S Subbalakshmi , KVN , Yesudas ( and many others) have always an attraction ? Notwithstanding their ability and technical knowledge , they also have sweet voice. It is true even on conversation. Some people have voices which are very "phonogenic" ( as Levitin calls it).
Physical gestures: Studies are also shown that non-musician listeners are exquisitely sensitive to the physical gestures of the musicians. By watching musical performance with the sound turned off, and attending to things like the musicians arm, shoulder and torso movements, ordinary listeners can detect a great deal of expressive intent of the musician. See , now you understand the gestures of T M Krishna and Sanjay ( as though they are driving an old Leyland truck through Western Ghats) during their concerts.

The aspect of chunking is also an interesting point. Chunking is the process of tying together units of information into groups and remembering the group instead of the individual pieces. for example STD codes. Musicians also use chunking in several ways ? Does the 'karvais' at the end of the swara singing in carnatic, can be classified under this ?

The book is full of results experiments and the analysis to support the topics discussed. Being brain, we have very little information on how does it behave and all the scientist are able to do is to observe the changes of various parts of brains with the measurements using EEG. This added to the experiments can lead us to a better understanding of the functions of brain musically.

An extremely interesting books for people who wants to know about the aspects of music , both scientific and conceptual. Though this book is more on the scientific in nature, it has written in a manner ( with case studies, anecdotes, history , examples) that even layman can understand.

Few questions remain.. Scientifically, how have we evolved musically ? Leave alone the technical innovations and invention of newer musical instruments, does the human brain understand and appreciate music better over generations ?

This Is Your Brain on Music - The Science of a Human Obsession
Written by Daniel J Levitin
313 Pages
Added on 05-Feb-08
Guru has read the book and have his thoughts here.
Added on 08-Feb 08
BERNARD HOLLAND Writes in NYTimes about the mannerisms of the musicians on stage..
It’s another reason classical music is not reaching more young people: not because of how it sounds, but because of how it looks. Even worse, lugubrious gymnastics like these advertise the feelings of performers, not of Beethoven or Schumann. Music is asked to stand in line and wait its turn.
Read the article here

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