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.


Airline News said...


Airline News said...

Dear Denny

The article in Gulf Times describing the Leader Shape event has caught my interest. Action Learning or Learning by doing seems to be the basis of the practical approach taken. Hope to perhaps discuss such ideas some time with you

Michael Byrne