Monday, December 26, 2011

The Music Experts

I’ve said it a thousand times—everyone is musical. And I’ve organized my life around proving it. But I recently heard on the radio some revealing research that shed some new light on the subject. Daniel Levitin, author of “This Is Your Brain on Music” was part of a research team that set about to quantify how performers evoke emotional responses in their listeners. They had a concert pianist perform a piece on a specially prepared piano that recorded the performance and then, through some technical process, was able to selectively remove all nuances of touch and tempo. It then made several different recordings of the same piece. On one end of the spectrum was the piece played mechanically with no variation in loudness and softness, all notes and beats played equally. At the other end was the original nuanced performance. In-between were various gradations— nuanced tempo, homogenized dynamics, subtleties of touch, regularity of tempo, etc. They then played the various recordings to a group of listeners and asked them to rate the quality of the performances.

Without fail, the listeners consistently ranked the performance with all nuances removed the lowest and ranked the original performance the highest. In quantifying the responses of the levels in-between, they discovered that subtlety in tempo evoked more emotional response than gradations of touch and dynamics. The punch line of the research was simply that emotion awakened through art communicates strongest when artists train themselves to manipulate the tones that pluck our heart strings with sensitivity and variety.

Not exactly a revolutionary insight, though one worth affirming. Whether in music, cooking, visual art, poetry or wine-tasting, the capacity to distinguish and appreciate all the shades of color between black and white gives a richness to our inner and outer lives. But for me, the most interesting discovery is that the listeners chosen for the test were a combination of professional musicians and the proverbial man on the street. And they both chose exactly the same!

That musicians listen with different ears because they understand the details of the music forms the basis of my chosen profession of music education—understanding feeds appreciation. But since music is the language of the emotion, it appears that without any technical training beyond previous exposure to the style, all people have the capacity to tell the difference between the mechanical and the inspired. The musicians might have the vocabulary to describe why one performance was better than the other, but the rest of us know when something is good.

This is important information for musicians. Sometimes if I’m performing piano for folks who don’t ordinarily listen to jazz, I think, “Well they don’t understand the style that well, I can get away with anything.” Bad idea! And at the other end, I’ve had many non-jazz aficionados confess to me after the concert, “You made me cry.” And after making my silly joke “I hope for the right reasons!” I’m impressed yet again by the power of music to communicate directly with the heart.

We are all music experts, regardless of training. But with a couple of qualifications and corresponding suggestions:

1)    This expertise is both given at birth by our mysterious capacity to respond to, understand and “speak” music and cultivated through exposure to a specific style. (It would be interesting to duplicate that research with examples of mechanical and nuanced sitar music or gamelan or West African drum choir. I suspect that listeners would not easily distinguish between inspired and mediocre without sufficient exposure to the grammar and syntax of a particular style.) Another way to say that is that a first step in music education is surrounding people with live or recorded examples of a musical style that soaks unconsciously into their understanding.

2)    One key factor of the experiment was attention and concentration. The listeners were in fact listening with their full attention instead of multi-tasking with music in the background. They also were listening with a purpose, asked to make an aesthetic judgment. We listen to music all the time while cooking, jogging, chatting at a party, but usually it is a very low-level listening. We should all take time to listen more deeply.

3)    If both the professional musicians and the “average” listener came to the same conclusion, am I out of a job? What’s the point of music education? Besides the obvious difference between being a passive listener and an active player, it is always a good idea to cultivate with the mind a conscious understanding of what the body and heart already know. I used to worry that knowing too much would interfere with my heartfelt response to music, distracting me by overanalyzing andworrying more about whether something was a first or second inversion chord than enjoying its effect. I suspect that could happen and if you’ve hung around music nerds talking shop, you might rightfully accuse them of missing the point.

But mostly such study has deepened my appreciation and enjoyment, as long as I remember to keep it in the background when actually listening or playing. And that’s probably true of everything we learn. The body and senses know it first and if it touches the heart, we’re motivated to keep exploring. When the mind begins to comprehend, learn a vocabulary to name, record and remember, work with ideas that connect and enlarge, we gain more control and mastery. Ultimately, the head, hand and heart work as a trio, with each taking turns leading the conversation. And that’s when things get interesting. 

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