June 9, 2011

Brain Scans reveal music appeals thru repetition with variation!

The great thing about the invention of brain scans is that they allow journalists to write articles about anicient topics as if they are news. 

And that's a good thing! There are a lot of important and interesting subjects that aren't "new," that aren't "growing" or "soaring" or "increasing" or all the other words that headline-writers feel obligated to use, but are still interesting. Fortunately, now there are brain scan studies coming out each month that reveal stuff we already kinda knew but are worth revisiting.

Here's a model example from the NYT last month: "To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons." I doubt if there's much of substance in it that, say, George Bernard Shaw wasn't writing about in his music reviews in the 19th Century, but it's still worth repeating about why some music is better than other music.

One thing I noticed in this article was that one of the experiments mentioned involved vocalist Bobby McFerrin, who presumably has, like a lot of artists, some time on his hands. (His hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was back in 1988.) McFerrin is a ridiculously musically talented guy with ten Grammies, and I think studying the talented can be a useful shortcut in science.

For example, I went to a scientific conference in Russia in 2001 with a number of German ethologists who studied human nature by filming hundreds of hours of normal people in various situations for evidence about common facial expressions, body language, and so forth. (Here's my article about Frank Salter videotaping would-be patrons approaching the bouncers behind the velvet rope at an exclusive night club.) My suggestion was that they could save time by videotaping a few professional improvisational comedians who make their living by exaggerating normal human reactions. For example, the old improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? with Wayne Brady and others is a trove of common but unexpected reactions.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if our partiality to repetition in music owes something to physical mechanisms. We breathe in and out. Our hearts beats. We walk with left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. We jump up and down, up and down. And sex is in and out, in and out. And fighting is left punch, right punch, left punch, right punch.

Suppose we were powered by a battery could live without breathing in and out. Suppose our minds could be just float, drift, soar weightlessly. Would we have a different musical sense?

gfs said...

"Suppose our minds could be just float, drift, soar weightlessly. Would we have a different musical sense?"

Bach, for instance?

"For example, I went to a scientific conference in Russia in 2001 with a number of German ethologists who studied human nature by filming hundreds of hours of normal people in various situations for evidence about common facial expressions, body language, and so forth."

Sailer did something cool. That can't be right.

Anonymous said...

The original, British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway was better. Tony Slattery was really something in it.

bluto said...

From a pretty useless but fun college class, people will interpret beats below say 30-35 bpm as a faster beat with a different count (it's theorized that this is due to hearts not fuctioning below those speeds).

Anonymous said...

people do like their brain scans

"It bears emphasis that there are lots of things other than looking for functional loci that brain scientists do for a living; and that they use lots of experimental techniques other than neural imaging to do them. But it’s functional localisation by neural imaging for which the Times is especially enthusiastic; and I’d guess that as the Times goes, so go the grants. It particularly likes those polychrome maps that show a place in the brain that’s red when you’re thinking about one thing and green when you’re thinking about something else. (Disappointingly, I gather it’s not that the brain turns red or green depending on what you’re thinking about; the colours are computer generated to summarise the levels of neural activity that the experiments discover.) Well, to come to the point, I wonder why the Times cares. I wonder why anybody cares."


agnostic said...

I think the evolutionary angle is that we have lots of stereotyped actions that fall into a regular rhythm, but every instance of them in the real world is somewhat different, requiring us to be aware of and respond to subtle changes in the rhythm.

For example, walking and running may have a regular beat, but each time you're out there walking or running, you will need to hold a stride longer or shorter, to pause, to take an extra step (like if you're preparing to leap), and so on.

Nobody walks or runs in lockstep, so music that is played in lockstep, like techno music, sounds robotic and terrible.

This is why a good use of syncopation is so necessary to make listenable and danceable music.

agnostic said...

It's nice that the article covered how important the brain regions related to movement and activity are in appreciating music. In highbrow accounts, you usually only hear about music as a way to feel emotions, not to prime your body to move and keep it going.

In fact, when you listen to a Bach fugue, Beethoven symphony, or other great work of classical music, you feel too overwhelmed by emotion to get up and move, even if it's a more sublime piece going at a frenetic pace.

That could be why it appeals more to the higher classes. Everyone wants something that stimulates the motor centers of the brain, but this way you won't actually jump out of your seat and start thrusting your pelvis to "Into the Groove" or bouncing around "Rebel Yell."

Anonymous said...

Our breathing patterns also limit and shape our singing ability and blowing styles with horns and brass. Even people who can hold looooooooooooong notes cannot hold them forever. But suppose we could vocally let out sounds that never ended.
There is also the matter of having only two hands. Suppose we were like octopuses and had eight limbs.
And what if we had eyes in the back of our heads too. Our music might be more panoramic than forward moving.

Nanonymous said...

A common figure of speech concerning perception of music is "resonance". I always suspected that something resonance-like is actually quite literal phenomenon all the way down to neuronal level.

Anonymous said...

"In highbrow accounts, you usually only hear about music as a way to feel emotions, not to prime your body to move and keep it going."

And Hanslick apparently doesn't even get a mention?

Geez, we suck.

gfs said...

"And what if we had eyes in the back of our heads too. Our music might be more panoramic than forward moving."

I'm imagining a translucent octopus dressed in a tux of sorts encircled by a keyboard. As he plays, the reds and greens of his brain shine through his eyes making him both the musician and the laser light show.

I'm also getting dizzy.

eh said...

Nice to hear (!) that playlists rest on a solid scientific foundation. I'll go create another.

jody said...

i'm always impressed with the way all humans seem to be able to instinctively find the pulse of music.


been watching korean pop music videos on youtube for a few years, and i notice concert culture in korea and japan is to hand out these light wands to the crowd, that they use to wave in time with the pulse of every song. it can be a small crowd of 1000:


or a big crowds of 10000 people all quickly find the pulse of different songs during a show.


there was a brief time when i was thinking about getting into this field, and i was gonna go study with this guy:


that was gonna be the dartmouth trip, but i decided the whole field was just too small and academic and not that interesting compared to other fields. robots were cooler, computers and the internet were cooler, et cetera.

the real, commercial US music industry was still interesting by itself back then too. lots of exciting jobs working with real musicians and bands. promoting concerts or booking tours, becoming a recording engineer, building guitars or drums or rack effects or amplifiers, those were all exciting options back when pop musicians played instruments. LOL back then you actually looked at the producer credit on the CD, wondered what guitars and amps the guitar player used, argued with your friends over who was the better drummer, bought the t-shirt.

now it's all gay. some song writer comes in and writes the song for the "musician", which is then studio produced synthesizer, drum machine, pro tooled crap, mixed down for maximum loudness with no dynamic range and burned to MP3, so an industry manufactured good looking woman with the bare minimum in talent can dance around on stage singing (sometimes not even singing) weakly while a backing track plays.

RandyB said...

I'm reading Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, part of which talks about how the brain processes different kinds of statements. He says (in MY words) that a believed opinion results in the same kind of brain activity as a fact. For instance, the brain processes "It is good to tell your children you love them" the same as "Mice are species of rodents."

I've long believed that the line between some opinions and facts is nearly invisible, like "Niagara Falls is more attractive than Elizabeth NJ."

Anonymous said...

Shockingly nobody has modified Gould's Wikipedia entry yet.

Ray Sawhill said...

The black intellectual Albert Murray once characterized Charlie Parker's music (and bop in general, if I remember right) as "dance music for the brain." Genius description, as far as I'm concerned. Steve, have you ever checked out Albert Murray? I think you'd find a lot of overlap with your ideas, only from a black point of view. I love Murray, as I love Ralph Ellison.

Ray Sawhill said...

And FWIW, after years in the media-and-entertainment worlds, it seems to me that what most people are hoping to get most of the time is the same old thing, only made resonant and fun in the Now. Ie.,repetition (the same old formulas) plus variation (some new, fresh, and/or unexpected element).

Not that there aren't pleasures to be had from Well-Done Examples of the Same Old Thing, or from Crazy, Whacky, You-Never-Seen-This-Before innovative/experimental stuff, of course. But "the same old thing, only freshened-up" seems to suit many people most of the time.

Polistra said...

Another good example this morning. Scientists have used brain scans to discover that nicotine makes you less hungry and more active!

Wow! Whodathunkit?


Anonymous said...

We like rhyming in poetry, symmetry in architecure and sculpture, etc. Genres are appealing because they repeat the same formual but with fresh variations. The desire for repetition is the conservative principle, the desire for variation is the liberal principle. Without repetition, there's only chaos. Without variation, we're headed only in one direction, like a train on tracks.
We like famiilarity but also new stimuli. We wanna a road before us but also the freedom to steer the car off the main path once awhile.
When we're home, we wanna go out and see new things. But when we've been out for too long, we wanna return home. So, repetition in music gives us a sense of place, and variation gives us a sense of adventure.
It goes for cooking too. We like to eat pizza over and over but with different toppings and from different places.
And we want to see certain same actors overand over but in different movies.

America may have been successful more than other nations cuz it found the right balance between repetition and variation. The 4 yr elections cycles remind us both of our political tradition and make us feel we're trying something new with a different leader. We remake ourselves in our own image. It's more like trying on new clothes with the same body than a violent radical surgery as with French Revol, Russian Revol, and Nazi Revol.
Reperiation is the key not just to music but everything in life.

But the downside of our reperiative nature is the rise of rap music which got the formula down pat but whose message is just awful.

Anonymous said...

The best thing about this is that brain scans are still revealing something.

Anonymous said...

Disappointingly, Steve made it all the way through this post without remembering to restate one of his iron laws of modern journalism and a fav meme of his blog, which is that any news story accompanied by pictures of brain scans is attractively high-falutin to editors and readers and thus takes priority over all other science stories.

He alludes to thia iron law of brain scans in his first sentence, but that isn't the same. Missed opportunity.

eh said...

Oh, and this is probably the reason Jazz is, from what I can see, the least popular of the major music genres -- in general it's the least lyrical and repetitive.

TGGP said...

Jazz used to be popular before bop transformed it into a more niche form.