7 November 2004

Music and the Brain

An article from Scientific American titled Music and the Brain. Nothing too enlightening, but it's got some hard data on what is generally taught in class. I'm in a constant battle with relativists who believe that there is no such thing as good and bad music. Studies such as those reported in the Scientific American article may help to support the universals that I argue for.

The article discusses several very Oliver Sacks-like studies [Wikipedia] done with individuals who have had parts of their brains damaged in an accident. The most interesting story involved Maurice Ravel [Wikipedia]. He had an accident late in life which rendered him unable to write down his music. He could compose in his head but was somehow unable to commit it to paper. [T]his opera is here, in my head. I hear it, but I will never write it. It's over. I can no longer write my music. Frightening.

The article discusses the research that shows that the same tone can change meaning depending on its location in a melody:

Responses depended on the location of a given tone within a melody; cells may fire more vigorously when that tone is preceded by other tones rather than when it is the first. Moreover, cells react differently to the same tone when it is part of an ascending contour (low to high tones) than when it is part of a descending or more complex one. These findings show that the pattern of a melody matters: processing in the auditory system is not like the simple relaying of sound in a telephone or stereo system.

And, as I've emphasized many times, anyone can learn to be a musician:

Brain responses also depend on the experiences and training of the listener. Even a little training can quickly alter the brain's reactions.

Some obvious points were made concerning subjectivity: musicians respond more to their primary instrument. And to objectivity: everyone responds positively towards consonant intervals (where the frequency ratios are simple) and negatively towards dissonant intervals (where ratios are more complex).

[ posted by sstrader on 7 November 2004 at 12:32:09 PM in Music ]