Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mirror Instruments in Our Brains

Recently, I became aware of some skills on the piano I did not know that I had. I was able to play very rapid arpeggios. At first, I did not know where these new found skills came from and then I realized that my left hand had developed those skills in playing a guitar. So, in a sense, there was a model of my finger motions in my brain that I was accessing and adapting to another instrument, the keyboard.

One might really say that many skills in music are developed by repetition for the purpose of developing models of real world instruments and musical patterns such as scales in our brains or what recent researchers have called, mirror neurons. I have certainly found that in being a musician, that playing music well is not a matter of thinking about scales but to let those scales become almost subconscious so that one is not thinking about the scale as much as using the scale as an entire model that can be then integrated into a larger whole (i..e the music that is being played). This is especially true in improvised music like jazz.

Music is also culturally conditioned at least to some extent and much like language, the common threads that run though different types of music define its genre and become a kind of musical meta language but one that is far more flexibly than is language.

I am also amazed at how we tend to follow one another in music. The desire we have for a catchy jingle seems to extend beyond the commercials and into our music. I was amazed at how Beyonce's "Single Lady" became so much of a hit when it is really little more than a jingle but it must be because the catchy and extremely simple little series of tunes seems to get stuck in our brains as mirror neurons. Apparently, referring these neurons is pleasant to us (or some - I am not a big Beyonce fan).

As I have said many times, even our keyboards become repositories of sampled sounds. We don't realize how influenced we are by certain types of beets. The person who goes to clubs every night becomes almost drawn to the dance beat with an almost Pavlovian type of response because somewhere in their brains this has been imprinted.

Now many, and some that have argued with great gusto with me about this, advocate the jingle. To them, the jingle is the summit of good music. I beg to differ. Good music does not take us where we have been firing up those musical pathways that have now developed well worn ruts, but music that takes us somewhere unexpected, into the musical frontier.

One great example is Penderecki's Polish Requiem. When I first listened to it I was rattled. It seemed harsh, chaotic, disturbing but as I listened more closely I heard something really really beautiful. I was transported into Penderecki's musical universe and there were so many beautiful sonic vistas there to explore. No well worn jingles there but something dynamic, something that stirred my emotions and evoked many images in my head. This, it seems to me, is an example of good music.

So I guess in many ways, I am not so much interested in mirror neurons but how to keep them changing to that the mirror becomes a tapestry of sound.

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