Wired for Sound

It is an easy seduction for an artist–any artist–to complain about being misunderstood and unappreciated. But according to Oliver Sachs (by way of Trevor Hunter’s excellent blog, New Music Box,) musicians may have a neurological right to that claim:

At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.

Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.

Of course, this has only come to be socially relevant over time. In smaller, pre-industrial societies, the low level of specialization meant that everyone participated in the culture’s music, and thus the differentiation between the brains of musicians and non-musicians was rendered moot by the fact that there were no non-musicians. Even in the much more specialized Classical and Romantic eras in Europe, whose composers commanded a vast repertory of arcane knowledge, both the patrons and the audiences were overwhelmingly indoctrinated into musical thinking. Only in a society like that would it have been so profitable for Liszt to make piano transcriptions of other composers’ works, since it was more likely that intended listeners would be able play through a piece themselves than hear another group perform it in concert.

But now, composers absorb more techniques and sounds than at any other time in history—the continuing specialization has led to a knowledge base that’s fully comprehendible to only those who are closest to it. Yet, on the other side is the startling fact that it is now possible and even common for a member of society to be non-congenitally unmusical. If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?

For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. But it can also feel artistically hollow, since we’re not using our full expressive capacity out of fear of alienation. More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.

This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.

2 Replies to “Wired for Sound”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    “I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.”

    Gosh, so do I, whether in conversation, art-making or writing. Communicating with one’s true peers is most nurturing, if only because there’s nothing quite like being well understood by someone capable of being moved by your work for the right reasons. If telltale neurological organization has now entered the forecourt of the house of “the Happy Few,” there to be worn as a badge of how happy and how few we really are, so be it. It’s a little nasty, but how can I object? As an artist, I want to be known — not in the fame sense, but in the deeper sense that if you let yourself be loved by one person, even, you have risked and sought being known.

    But, until about 100 years ago, a major artist would have felt that pleasing and attracting — and communing with — the concert-going public was the real job of music. Perhaps Mahler was the last truly great composer to think this way? It didn’t prevent his being innovative in form and unique in sound, and it didn’t make him into a pander. The splendor of filling a hall with listeners who could be counted on to listen almost with one mind, who brought to the experience a sense of occasion, who were musical because to be musical was a cherished aspect of being Viennese, cannot have registered as less-than with Mahler. But he had the whole culture pulling for him, even those who couldn’t afford a ticket, and no one but rock stars has this today. How much easier, then, and more natural it must have been in his day to compose for “everyone.”

    I’m not sure if the finding cited above — that musicians are differently organized in their brains than non-musicians — should be extrapolated to include members of a serious music concert audience, some of whom are bound to be non-musicians. Is Trevor Hunter perhaps referring to the kind of ideal audience Glenn Gould posited? Where artists played to an audience of artists? If not, then there are members of the audience who lack that special equipment, even if they are musically literate non-musicians. I would be interested to know, too, if that particular neurological organization is not the result of many years of 6 to 8 hour days of practice on an instrument, rather than the cause that inspires a commitment of that nature.

    The best audience is made up of thinking, feeling human beings whose imaginations can be appealed to; if these people do not happen to be a mirror image of the artist — good.

  2. E, Insightful as always. Thank you for taking the time to add so much to this post.

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