Sunday, May 11, 2008

This is my brain on This Is Your Brain on Music

Another year of Blue Metropolis has come and gone. While this year I had the time to go, there was little inclination.

The only attraction for me was "local" boy Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, and it was a last-minute decision to trek downtown at the end of the afternoon last weekend. The show was sold out, but I benefited from one of a few cancellations.

Levitin briefly reviewed some main points from his book, complete with slides and audio samples.

(I can't help but compare Levitin and Steven Pinker, a presentation of whose I attended a few months ago (and no, I didn't get around to writing about it here). Pinker started out in Montreal and journeyed to MIT and beyond, while Levitin made the reverse trip. Pinker's event was a rock concert with high production quality; he's the Bono of cognitive science. The show, and it was a show, had well-rehearsed banter, precision timing — a choreography of slides, commentary, and use of physical space, and just the slightest edge of boredom in his voice. Levitin, on the other hand, was like some obscure little indie band no one's ever heard of, but there's something so genuine, and clever, about the performance you rave about it to all your friends and wonder why more people haven't heard of this guy.)

The main point of the talk, and the book, is what an amazingly amazing super-computer the brain is. We can identify a piece of music given just a couple notes of it, even if we've never heard that particular arrangement before, by picking out rhythm and relative pitch intervals and stuff like that and running those factors against the library of templates we have stored in our brains. No computer can do that, and Levitin says we're at least a dozen years away from technology being sophisticated enough to come close.

Levitin demonstrated the principle by playing us the opening of Beethoven's instantly recognizable Symphony no. 5, as played on power tools, which rendition no one was previously familiar with.

The whole left brain/right brain thing is a gross oversimplification, be you a listener or producer of music. Music is parcelled and processed by pitch, rhythm, timbre, volume, in different cerebral areas. We have a sense of musical syntax, whereby a phrase produces an expectancy generation, which is violated or satisfied, and we react accordingly. We have a reflex to move to music.

Music changes your brain. We feel strongly about it. It lights up primitive and emotional and pleasure centres. A sex-and-drugs-and rock-and-roll centre, if you will. Musicians have thicker corpus callosums (callosi?), being the bridge between the left and right hemispheres. Practicing an instrument changes your brain (Levitin reminds us: "practicing" anything changes your brain — it's called learning). But: a knowledge of music theory doesn't seem to affect or improve the way one responds to or produces music, at least at a biochemical level, much as reading and writing are inconsequential to story-telling. (Paul McCartney can't read music; Eddie van Halen is well-versed in theory. Who's the better "musician"?)

Levitin's very funny and down-to-earth. (He plays in a band at McGill: The Diminished Faculties.) He treated us to a pretty lengthy reading from his out-this-summer book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (to be released August 15, according to Levitin; Amazon states September).

The excerpt was memoir-like, recounting the days when Levitin quite college to pursue the possibility of a career as a professional musician, to which there's some anthropocultural point. Levitin assures us the rest of book is not so autobiographical, but it would be no great crime if it were.

He's had some unusual occupations, many of which seem likely to lend themselves to the collecting of colourful anecdotes.

I chickened out from asking my recently pressing question: Do people learn to suppress the instinct to sway, tap, hum when they listen to their iPods and will I also acquire this skill with practice, or is it possible that music for many has become white noise?

Imagined response: "Obviously you lack discipline, you crazy person. Get a grip."

An evening out is always more than the main event. My outing was highlighted with incidental dialogue and an eerie soundtrack.

There was a small group of older people behind me in the line to enter the lecture room. By "older" I mean older than me — older than middle aged but preretirement; they frown somewhat on cell phones. They sounded like they intended to be heard. I hope I never do that. One garrulous creature stormed into their group with air kisses and odd pronouncements on some festival events and wandered off 5 minutes later; a woman in the group later loudly explained to her companions, "We tend to run into each other at any significant cultural event that's a little on the outrĂ© side. We share the same eclectic tastes, you see." People really talk like that!

Musically, the event was bracketed by a walk to and from the metro station, through long, empty, echoing hallways. I heard the occasional click of heels passing some distance from me. And then the swelling of the busker's instrument. He played the theme from The Godfather on what looked to be a plastic flute from the dollar store. He played it perfectly, plaintively. Over and over. On my return journey, he was still playing it. Maybe the only song he knows, or, it occurs to me now, the only one it's possible to play completely in tune on that particular instrument.


rachel said...

Wow, I'm totally envious. Levitin is like, my secret brain-science boyfriend.

Isabella said...

I thought of you, Rachel, when I saw him and as I wrote this. Brain-science guys are totally sexy.