Sunday, November 20, 2011

Levitin - This is your brain on music

Obviously, the title of this book is a take off on the scare-tactic commercials of bygone days of drug prevention. However, this kind of "your brain on..." is scientific, engaging, and, to a musician, a beautiful explanation of why I am so passionate about listening to, understanding, and performing music. For someone not deeply versed in what makes music interesting - pitch, timbre, rhythm, harmony, melody, and dynamics - the early chapters of This is Your Brain on Music are easily understood descriptions of things that we all understand at a general and descriptive level. However, understanding how they work together and how conventional use of each, as well as surprise uses, create the beautiful music that we listen to time and again, will hopefully help everyone enjoy music even more.

The assertion of the book is that music, dating back 50,000 years, may have been a type of vocalization that eventually led to the creation of language. From a neural science point of view, music uses more areas of the brain than any other function yet known. That's why brain-trauma patients who have lost their ability to read, talk, or even move can still sing songs that they learned as children or do something as complex as play the piano.

Music is so much a part of our daily existence that many of us don't even recognize when it is around us. Our taste for music is also shaped by the environments where we live. If we tend to associate with only those like us, we tend to have a narrower appreciation across history and culture. Exposure to broad types of music is particularly important for children because our preferences are established by our late teenage years. That's not to say that we can't learn to appreciate other types of music but, if we want to broaden our interests, it takes intentional effort.

Broadening musical exposure takes us into the culture of others and what is interesting about the cultivation of taste outside of our norm is what Levitin describes as a "U" shape. The "U" shape occurs when a 2-axis graph is created with one axis being complexity and the other appreciation. Initially, simple forms of music are attractive to us and they are the ones to which we resonate. Over time, the simple forms of music may become boring or too familiar a part of what we hear. Thus, we spread out and try new types of music but it is very predictable that the initial listening may require a stretch of comprehension. That's why, when we hear something to which we are initially attracted, we listen to it over and over, becoming more familiar with the new complexity of sound until our appreciation is firmly established.

Because music is so ubiquitous in our world, I see it as a metaphor for many other things, including leadership. So the idea of cultivating interest in diverse music is probably not unlike what it takes to cultivate curiosity and interest in other countries or cultures. Initially, we strike out to explore a culture that is a little bit of a stretch for us. However, as we travel more, or as we are exposed to greater diversity in our experience, we become more comfortable with greater diversity. My experience in Qatar has broadened both my interests in music as well as people. At first I explored cautiously, seeking to encounter difference that was only a slight departure from my own preferences or background. Now the easy stretches are less stimulating; I've grown more comfortable and trusting of greater stretches over time and now enjoy encounters that would have taken me completely outside of my comfort zone just a few years ago. It works in music, in relationships, and leadership.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

As I get older...

Cornell West, eminent scholar who has offered essential comment in the discourse of contemporary American questions, has determined to return to his roots at the age of 58. In a statement about West’s decision to return to Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary where he started as an assistant professor in 1977, Rev. Serene Jones, Union’s President said, “As you get older, the more integrated your life is, the healthier it feels and the less time you have to spend waking up deciding who you’re going to be that day.” What a remarkable statement! And, it is the relief of advancing age that each day I wake up I spend less and less time deciding who I’m going to be that day.

West’s statement also indicated that he knew his days of fullest engagement in his work were numbered and thus, he wanted to pursue the work he was called to do on this earth. The joy of being in Qatar is that I fully identify with, and am buoyed each day by, the comfort of knowing who I am and knowing that my work is worthwhile and purposeful. And, I know that there is no place I would rather be than Qatar in a time when higher education is so important to young people around the globe.

One of the topics I’ve struggled to understand of late is the question of working in places like Qatar, and many other emerging economies where expatriates work. There are many benefits to being here but it also requires some sacrifices that can weigh you down. It is being aware of the balancing act of fulfillment in the work against the sacrifices that it takes to be here that requires constant monitoring. Lack of self-awareness on this question can be deadly. Deep awareness, while painful, at least allows me (and perhaps others) to focus attention in ways that maintains a tolerable balance. I hope to explore this more in future posts that are informed by talking to some of the other expatriates and Qatari colleagues with whom I work. We have a lot to learn from each other.