The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

Knowing Music

I’m thinking about the different ways we know music.

Image of Symphony Hall at nightLast Saturday, I was lucky to have tickets for a classical music concert in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (the image shows how it looked that night). The event was, I think, the first all-Mozart concert I’ve ever attended, and it was wonderful.

The program began with the Marriage of Figaro overture, ended with the Requiem, and in between we heard one of Mozart’s loveliest pieces, the Piano Concerto No 21.

I like listening to Western classical music for many reasons, but one is because of the depth and range of experiences involved. The music’s structural complexity and long traditions allow it to tap into many emotions. As well as the feelings, how you listen to classical music can vary, often within a single piece. You can consciously savour the flow, self-consciously attend to the structure, let the feelings wash over you, or even drift off into other thoughts (i.e. hearing, not listening).

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It was the piano concerto that set me thinking about how we listen to, and recognise, music. It’s a piece I got to know when I was very young, as my parents had a tape of it, performed by the great Hungarian pianist Geza Anda. I’ve never formally studied it, though, so I don’t know it the way a musician would. And until the concert, I hadn’t heard it for years.

Yet as soon as it began, the gap of time was bridged. The feeling of recognition was like relaxing into a warm bath. I knew instantly what was coming next; I knew every point at which the performance differed from the Anda version, and if the pianist had put a finger wrong I’d have been instantly, wincingly aware of it. I’ve often, hearing something on the radio, known that it wasn’t ‘my’ recording, without being able to say what piece it is or who wrote it. And hearing something live, of course, is quite different from hearing recordings, especially when the acoustics are as fantastic as they are in Symphony Hall.

At two points in the piece, there are cadenzas—show-off moments, basically—where the pianist has a choice of what to play. As soon as he started his first cadenza, I knew it wasn’t the one Geza Anda played, and I felt the internal switch from warm emotional bath to cooler cognition. I became interested in the music, its structure, how each phrase reflected aspects elsewhere in the concerto … in other words, I was listening much more analytically.

The slow central movement switched me back into the fuzzy glow of—not memories, exactly, but the feelings associated with them. It’s surely one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written (available on YouTube, if you can put up with the preceding ad for something very different). It needs limpid, delicate lightness—think sunlight gleaming through a waterfall—as so much of Mozart’s music does. I was on tenterhooks for the first few notes of the piano’s entry, until I realised he’d basically got it right. Phew!

And yet, as I said, I’ve never played this piece and hadn’t heard it for years. Music digs deep tracks in the mind, especially in childhood. Works I’ve learned to love as an adult don’t bring the same intense awareness of details.

Research suggests that, like language, music is easily and naturally picked up in childhood, and that children who don’t encounter it early in life may lose the ability to revel in it later. Yet many schools, and parents, see classical music as too difficult, or an unnecessary luxury (even nowadays, when recordings are cheap and orchestras are working hard at outreach).

People claim that classical music is elitist. (Here in the UK concerts are cheaper than football matches.) How much of that response is defensive? Calling something elitist gives you an excuse for not making an effort to do it. Classical music needs work, certainly, unless you’re young enough to soak it up easily. So does learning any new skill, but does that mean that anyone with a skill is somehow ‘elitist’?

A child who learns to love classical music has been given a great treasure. He or she will have immense resources to fall back on, in good times or bad. Music engages our brains much more extensively than many other activities. It’s good for us, too, reducing stress markers and promoting that sense of ‘flow’ which is associated with rest and relaxation. It’s “amongst the most rewarding experiences for humans”. And learning to play teaches teamwork and self-discipline, quite apart from being fun to do and a boost to self-esteem.

It’s a real shame so many children miss out on these life-enhancing joys.

(Copyright @neurotaylor 2013. A longer version of this post can be found at my blog.)

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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