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Neuroscience of Music and Creativity

Sean Carroll holds the Richard Feynman chair in physics at CalTech , and hosts a multi-disciplinary podcast named “Mindscape”.

In this episode, he interviews two jazz musicians who have been exploring the neuroscience of music and creativity – both from the perspective of the performer as well as the listener.

The first thing you’ll no doubt question is whether their brain mapping approach runs the risk of dehumanizing music – making it mechanical, much in the way that “perfect” rhythm (fixed in “post” via software) drains the natural pulse out of music.

I’m on the fence as far as where they’ll take their research, but irrespective of this, they raise a few provocative points I’ve thought about for quite some time – both as a listener as well as an aspiring musician.

Harmonic Surprise

I absolutely love that phrase.

I gave a talk at the Colorado Audio Society several years ago, and I brought up the idea of learning an instrument if you don’t have a musical background.  I posited that an inexpensive keyboard, guitar, ukulele, pennywhistle (whatever) will teach you more about music and your hi-fi than any cable upgrade can … and it can set you back as little as $2-300.

After doing that, you’ll appreciate that cable upgrade even more.

I say this because music is a language, and when you learn its fundamentals, everything will unfold in a different light.  You don’t need to become proficient to reap its benefits.

I liken learning the language of music to a comedian telling a joke.  The comedian sets up the premise, guides you through the body of the joke and then hits you with the “surprise”.  Think of the person for whom English isn’t their native language.  The joke frequently depends on our language constructs and colloquialisms and the joke may make no sense to the individual who doesn’t have a native speaker’s grasp of the language.

As far as the language of music is concerned, having even a cursory understanding (for example) of how a minor chord differs from a major chord, or how the composer sets up musical tension and resolves it will completely change your perspective.

Who knows?  You might even take a liking to musical genres that previously made no sense to you.  How does it get better than that?

Melody vs. Harmony

The concept of harmony is foreign in some Eastern musical traditions.  I’ll explore this in a future post, as it’s raised quite a few questions. 

One of them is why so many heavy metal musicians have a deep training in classical music.  Many are clearly extremely proficient, but what is it about metal that they were drawn to?

I don’t get heavy metal at all.  It sends me running out of the room.  Still, I’m extremely curious as to how people perceive it, and why it works for them.  I suspect this in part has to do with how some of us re-map melody (most notably arpeggios) into harmonic content, which is why I led into this topic by pointing to Eastern musical traditions.

I’d be most interested in your thoughts on this, as it’s been puzzling me for quite some time.