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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Page 18 of 44

tionarily adaptive, so you will know what's coming next and know whether you need to get out of the way or know that after a lion roars it might attack. Our life is based in temporal contingencies. This part of the brain that probably evolved for food, fear, and mating is working in music to fnd out what's coming next. Music has a tight structure. There are 12 notes in our system and more or less 24 chords that we use most of the time, 48 when you include diminished and augmented chords. There is a limited vocabulary of notes and chords that most people use. Through tens of thousands of hours of listening, we have internal- ized certain rules that music follows most of the time. Chord progressions can either lead us into a sense of complacency or excite us or challenge us. That's what composers are playing around with in their work. The idea of getting the tension and release to reward your expectations some of the time and surprise you the rest, is crucial for music to work. Suppose I write a simple melody that goes, do re mi do. What do I do next to hold your attention? I might go, do re mi do, re mi fa re. The listener says, "Ah, I see what he's doing," and feels a con- nection to the composer. Now if I go, do re mi do, re mi fa re, mi fa sol mi, I will start to lose you because it sounds too much like an exercise, it becomes predictable. But I can focus your attention and change your expectation by changing one note that implies a different harmony if I sing, do re mi do, re mi fa re, mi fa sol, and then drop to sol an octave lower. This makes it feel like I should resolve to the tonic. I may not, though; I might go the mediant or submediant. I can do any number of things there. So the composer can redirect your attention with chord progressions. In The Organized Mind, you discuss what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the "fow state," in which people experience their performance exceeding their normal abilities. How does one get there? Whether you are an acrobat, a computer program- mer, an athlete, or a painter, you don't reach the fow state until you have mastered the fundamentals. In the fow state, you don't have to think about what you are doing. Something takes over. You see this in a transcen- dent performance in any domain. An actor who disap- pears into a role isn't thinking, "I'll put my right foot here, and I'm standing at a bar, so I'd better put my hand on the counter now." Maybe as they work things out there is that dialogue, but in the performance that moves you, they have to just be the character and that stuff has to be there for them. It's a special brain state that we can see in brain scanners. My colleague Charles Limb put jazz musicians into a brain scanner and asked them to improvise. You might think that improvising is hard and all kinds of brain activity is going to happen. What Limb found instead was that a very important part of the brain in the pre- frontal cortex that we call the editor shuts down. It's the fnger-wagging part, and no blood goes there, it has to be offine for improvisation. To be in fow, that part of the brain can't be telling you, "Don't do that. It's never going to work. You were never any good." It's a fght for many musicians to learn how to turn those feelings off. It's important to realize that music is not a competi- tion, it's about communicating. We are hard on our- selves as musicians—harder than people are in other domains. If you go to a city park, you won't fnd kids saying, "I'm no Michael Jordan, so I'm not going to play basketball." Or if you're with friends who ask your opin- ion on a certain topic, you don't answer, "I'm no Martin Luther King, so I'm not going to talk." But in music, we think, "I'm not good enough to play for you." It goes back to learning. Victor Wooten makes the point that when little children are learning language, we don't tell them they aren't good enough to talk to adults yet. We talk to them right away, they make mistakes and they are adorable. The point isn't to have a perfect little Shakespeare at three years old. It's for this unique per- son to express what they are feeling in the world in their own way. Have you had people writing music in your lab? We had Sting write a song in the scanner and we are analyzing the data now. Brains are so different from one another that we generally study 10 or 20 people and then take averages in order to really understand what's going on. If we study one brain, the fndings might only be true for that brain: we can't generalize. So studying Sting is a wonderful and rare opportunity, but we'd need to study more people like him—what- ever that means. What else is on the horizon for you? I want to continue teaching, it's very important for learning. The best learners teach and the best teach- ers learn. I am so impressed with the new generation of students that come through our doors. They're so smart and will be running things in a while, so I want to help them in any way I can. I also want to keep play- ing with great musicians. I also hope to keep writing books as long as people are interested in what I have to say. I've got the next three or four books mapped out in my head. What's the subject of your next book? I'm writing about critical thinking for the average per- son. The point will be to teach people how to avoid believing a whole lot of things that are not so. It will be all practical material. There will be no theory or brain science even though it's based on those foundations. It will be about evaluating claims that we read in the news and applying logic and info literacy to under- stand that some sources are better than others. Has the way the various parts of your career became woven together seemed somewhat improvised? The whole thing has been an improvisation. I had a lot of plans that didn't come to fruition. While I was pursu- ing one thing, something else came up. I learned how important it is to be fexible if something looked more interesting or offered the chance to learn something more enticing than what was I after. But throughout, I've stayed true to my interests: science, music, and writing. That part has never changed. I feel incredibly fortunate that the three of them have converged into one line of thinking. 16 Berklee today

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