Berklee today

OCT 2015

Berklee today is the official alumni publication of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a forum for contemporary music and musicians.

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Fall 2015 15 Your books reveal your ability to break down complex scientifc concepts and language about the brain so that general readers can understand. That comes out of teaching. Being a teacher is a great way to make sure you understand things. I am abso- lutely convinced that I walk away from my classes hav- ing learned more than the students. In teaching about music and the brain or memory and attention, I've encountered students who didn't understand it and I've had to fgure out better ways to explain things. If a person doesn't understand what I'm teaching, I ask myself, "What piece are they missing?" To me it's all about the pieces. For anyone to understand anything, you need to give them the right pieces. You've written that some of our early musical impulses are very important. We see that some great artists—James Taylor for example— stay pretty close to their original trajectory throughout their careers while others—perhaps Sting—seem to always be searching. Is there a brain-chemical component behind these two scenarios? Yes, there is. Of the thousands of ways we humans dif- fer from each other, one is our openness to immersing ourselves in new experiences. Miles Davis and Picasso were very open to new experiences. Others—maybe Lawrence Welk—not so much. It will manifest itself in different parts of life. You might have a friend who always wants to go with you to the same restaurant and maybe even orders the same dish each time you go out. Other friends may check Zagat for new restau- rants and new dishes. It might be about travel, flm, or new health trends. So within that range, you'll fnd artists who are more open to a new experience and others who value taking a concept and burnishing and polishing it until it's just right. Look at Vincent van Gogh. He paint- ed irises many times. It's clear that he got in a mode where he wanted to get it right. Painters do this a lot and so do some musicians. James Taylor has worked to perfect what he does. He's built himself a space— which he does step out of from time to time—but there is this sphere in which he is honing his craft. I wonder if he has an ideal song in his mind that he is always reaching for. I think an artist like Sting is interested in staying challenged in a different way—although I would never say that Sting is more interested in mental challenge than James. It's a different challenge to work inside a sphere and come up with something better each time versus the challenge of trying to create new spheres. Sting told me that he will often write himself into a corner. He writes the frst part of a song and has no idea how to get out of it. Whether it's harmonically, melodically, or lyrically, he gets stuck, and that to him is gold. If he can fnd his way out he knows the listener will be challenged and rewarded on repeated listen- ings. If he sticks with a I, V, I; or I, vi, ii, V, I, that's not going to happen. Many musicians have responded enthusiastically to your writing about music and the brain. Something I never anticipated was that because I am the guy who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, I've got- ten to meet so many of my musical heroes, and in many cases, play with them. I've played with Victor Wooten, Tom Scott, Mike Stern, and Shelly Berg. I've done public shows with Rosanne Cash and Bobby McFerrin, and it's been exceptionally rewarding for me. I've realized what makes a great musician by playing with these people. A factor that I hadn't realized until I played with them is that it's exactly what makes a great conversationalist: they listen to you, and you feel listened to. I played with Gregg Field, who played drums with Count Basie's band. As a guitarist, I was not used to having a drummer listen to me. He responds to every little nuance, and then you can give it back to him. When we are talking, we can really only have a conversation with one or two other people. Three people talking at once is the maximum that the brain's attentional system can handle. There is a processing or speed limit in the brain. That's expressed as 120 bits per second. A normal conversation might be 50 bits, so you can just barely keep track of three people talking at once. With four or fve people talking, you're going to be losing content. It's no wonder we've got wars. There are 7 billion people on the planet and you can only understand two other people at a time! Is there an analogue to how many things in music we can follow at once? Well, it doesn't work that way. Because of harmony, rhythm, and flling in gaps with structure, you can fol- low a lot more. I don't know what the limit is, but if you are in a fve-piece combo, you can keep track of what everyone is doing. I was talking to Kent Nagano, conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, about what conductors are really hearing and listening for. A good conductor is listening to all of the parts and can point to the third chair violinist and say, "You're fat." But people can't do that in conversation. Lyrics and melody are well explored in your writing. Has your research touched on the emotional power of harmony in music? Oh sure. There's a lot to say about that. First, the asso- ciation that we have with major being happy and minor being sad is culturally induced, it's not universal. In India, subSaharan African countries, or China, they don't make that assumption. We've learned that in our culture because composers have reinforced it by hav- ing other sad elements coexist with minor chords and happy elements coexist with major. Chord progressions are part of a system of expec- tation, of tension and release as the engine of music. The engine is based on the idea that we are going to follow some of what the composer is doing, but we want to be surprised every once in a while. Whether you know it or not, your brain is constantly predicting what's going to happen next in music. There is a brain structure I've been studying for about 15 years called Brodmann Area 47. It's a little sliver of tissue on either side of the temples. Its job is to fgure out what's going to happen next in the temporal sequence. It's evolu- "Inthef lowstate, youdon'thaveto thinkaboutwhat youaredoing. Somethingtakes over.Youseethis inatranscendent performanceinany domain."

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