Whisper music to my weary spirit

Is music just sounds -a series of notes bundled together, like words in a conversation, or shapes in a painting? Like them, is musical appreciation an attempt by the brain to assign meaning, relevance, and structure to differentiate it from the ambient sounds we encounter every day: the whistle of wind leaking through a partially opened window, the rustle of leaves in a forest, the chirrup of the first robin in a nearby tree at dawn?

Do we break music down like we do the grammar of sentences: subject, object, verb,  noun, adjective…? Is music, in other words, merely the phonetic equivalent of morphemes strung out, not into mere sentences, or even paragraphs, but into whole stories?

In a way, we can maybe see the similarity of a memorable story with that of a catchy tune, or perhaps a moving symphony; and yet, should we -can we- equate the information and emotional content of a novel, say, with that of a concerto, or maybe a choral requiem? There seems to be a qualitative difference -each may be stirring, but somehow in non-identical ways.

I have wondered about this ever since I was an admittedly nerdy child. What was the difference between a gorgeous sunset, and an inspiring story; between a Rachmaninoff prelude, and a poem by Robert Frost…? In those early, naive days, I suspect I was wont to conflate things that drew me into them -things that had the magic quality of dissolving whatever boundaries confined me inside my own thoughts. Music was a potent drug, and so many of the intervening years have been occupied with a search for more and more purveyors: dealers.

I have therefore been attracted to articles dealing with that hard to describe boundary between music and, well, the rest of reality. There was an article I found in Aeon that caught my eye: https://aeon.co/essays/music-is-in-your-brain-and-your-body-and-your-life

It was written by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas. I suppose what initially intrigued me was her contention that ‘the past few decades of work in the cognitive sciences of music have demonstrated with increasing persuasiveness that the human capacity for music is not cordoned off from the rest of the mind. On the contrary, music perception is deeply interwoven with other perceptual systems, making music less a matter of notes, the province of theorists and professional musicians, and more a matter of fundamental human experience.’ In other words, that music is somehow different, something more than mere sounds piled one on top of each other -more than whatever order may be ascribed to the pattern emerging from a dropped deck of cards.

Indeed, ‘Brain imaging produces a particularly clear picture of this interconnectedness. When people listen to music, no single ‘music centre’ lights up. Instead, a widely distributed network activates, including areas devoted to vision, motor control, emotion, speech, memory and planning. Far from revealing an isolated, music-specific area, the most sophisticated technology we have available to peer inside the brain suggests that listening to music calls on a broad range of faculties, testifying to how deeply its perception is interwoven with other aspects of human experience. Beyond just what we hear, what we see, what we expect, how we move, and the sum of our life experiences all contribute to how we experience music.’

And as she writes, ‘Music, it seems, is a highly multimodal phenomenon. The movements that produce the sound contribute essentially, not just peripherally, to our experience of it – and the visual input can sometimes outweigh the influence of the sound itself. Visual information can convey not only information about a performance’s emotional content, but also about its basic structural characteristics.’

I was struck by the picture that begins her essay: a photograph of the late Janis Joplin performing at The Fillmore, San Francisco in 1968; she was a particular, and long-time, favourite of mine. Just seeing Janis, with her head tilted back, and eyes closed, I felt I could hear her again. Feel the energy… I could hardly stop my foot from tapping out the rhythm of Try (Just a little harder) and I was transported back to all the various other concerts of the 60ies I had attended. Amazing, eh? That a memory, a photograph, can bundle so much together. That music can knit the ravelled sleeve of care, and ‘paint an embodied picture of music-listening, where not just what you see, hear and know about the music shapes the experience, but also the way you physically interact with it matters as well. This is true in the more common participatory musical cultures around the world, where everyone tends to join in the music-making, but also in the less common presentational cultures, where circumstances seem to call for stationary, passive listening.’

‘Neuroimaging has revealed that passive music-listening can activate the motor system. This intertwining of music and movement is a deep and widespread phenomenon, prevalent in cultures throughout the world. Infants’ first musical experiences often involve being rocked as they’re sung to. The interconnection means not only that what we hear can influence how we move, but also that how we move can influence what we hear.’

I have always found music to be so much more than the sound or the rhythm, and I have to admit that although I have never felt compelled to dance, I have never been able to remain motionless -or for that matter, emotionless- in its presence. And, as with everything else in life, I am affected more by some songs, some genres, some performances than others, but these things, too, vary. Music isn’t static, any more than a particular recipe always tastes the same no matter the cook.

As the author, Margulis, writes, ‘Music cannot be conceptualised as a straightforwardly acoustic phenomenon. It is a deeply culturally embedded, multimodal experience. At a moment in history when neuroscience enjoys almost magical authority, it is instructive to be reminded that the path from sound to perception weaves through imagery, memories, stories, movement and words.’

The threads that music has woven through my years have not frayed; unlike the patchwork pattern of my life it has held together -indeed, held me together. I am reminded of a proverb I read somewhere: A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song. And sometimes, you know, that is really all you need…

The Unheard Problem with Noise

Life in the city can be noisy. That’s not where I live, so I find my occasionally unavoidable forays into its bowels almost unbearable.

“How can you live like this?” I asked a friend as we sat on the patio of a coffee shop on a downtown street as an ambulance screamed by.

“What do you mean?” she answered, looking at me with puzzled eyes, her coffee on it’s way to her mouth undisturbed.

The noise had been so obviously intrusive and irritating, that words failed me for a moment. I raised my arm and pointed along the busy, cacophonous street.

“All the people, you mean?” She smiled innocently and shrugged. “It’s near lunch time, I guess,” she said, and picked up her coffee for another sip.

I rested my hands on the table to steady them before I made an attempt to lift my own cup. “Don’t you find it rather…” I paused as I searched for the proper word to describe my angst. “… turbulent?” It was probably not the best description, but I still felt agitated.

The smile wavered for a moment as she tried to decipher my question. Then she sighed –or at least seemed to sigh –I couldn’t hear her soft intake of air in the din that vibrated and careened around us as if we were sitting in the middle of a traffic jam at rush hour. “You’ve been away too long, my friend,” she said, shaking her head sadly.

I attempted to return her smile, but I think my lips were quivering too much for it to become the answer she expected. “Doesn’t all the noise bother you Janet?”

She blinked her eyes slowly in reply. It might have been seductive in another setting, but here it only seemed like a rebuke. “You learn to block it out. It’s an urban adaptation…” Her face softened at my obvious discomfort. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I even hear it anymore unless it’s so loud it scares me…”

That seemed counterproductive to me, but I didn’t say so at the time. Warning signals are surely just that: alarms that are meant to alert those in the vicinity to potential risks. They’re supposed to provoke a reaction. In my case it probably heightened my awareness of the risks of signal fatigue. Of crying wolf too often. Perhaps it also sensitized me to research that recognized this and attempted novel technological solutions: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170714-the-brain-hacking-sound-thats-impossible-to-ignore

The alerting signal the article discussed ‘was inspired by neuroscience research on sounds that affect the emotion-processing centres of the brain.’ It was originally used in Malawi, Africa, ‘To alert Malawi locals to HIV tests and health checks from a mobile clinic […].’

The problem there, as here, was the brain’s tendency to adapt to frequently discordant and unpleasant ambient noise –blocking it from conscious awareness, in effect. It ‘was inspired by the neuroscience research of Luc Arnal at the University of Geneva. Arnal had investigated what neural connections are activated when humans hear a sound that is particularly difficult to ignore: screaming. Scans revealed that, when we hear the characteristically rough, distressing sound of a scream, the amygdala – which processes fear reactions – is activated in our brains. “What I found is that this roughness doesn’t go through the same neural pathways used by speech,” he says.

It means that screams don’t just get our attention, they immediately prompt us to react in some way. We’re stimulated to actually do something. […] Arnal had previously suggested that this insight could be used to design better alarms and sirens that don’t just make us freeze when we hear them, but actually invoke a more constructive reaction.’

An American artist, Jake Harper, had previously recorded  the music of a local band in Malawi and edited it into a form that ‘sounds like nothing you’d recognise from a street elsewhere in the world. Strangely unlike a conventional emergency services siren, instead it is a discordant mashup of musical fragments and intermittent white noise.’

‘Harper spent months experimenting with audio software to try and come up with a noise that sounded man-made enough to distinguish it from human or animal voices in the bush, but which was also not overly harsh or distressing. Getting the balance right – appealing to the emotion-processing parts of the brain without inducing fear or shock – was tough. The results were encouraging. Harper says that on average, a mobile clinic would test 40 people per day for HIV. “During the trial we had 160 people come to get tested,” he says.’

For Arnal, ‘that succeeds in meeting the three key goals here: produce a sound that grabs people’s attention; avoid distressing them; make sure it is distinguishable from non-manmade sounds in the environment.’

‘Our understanding of how audio influences human psychology has evolved greatly in recent years, according to Annett Schirmer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. For example, studies have shown that people’s neural activity can be co-ordinated with the help of external rhythms. This is exactly the sort of effect you would expect from, say, factory or farm labourers working in time to a song – or the effect of cohesion observed in musicians performing together.

“Music stimulation entrains certain mental processes and aligns them between individuals […]” However, she warns there is also a dark side to using music to alter behaviour.

“Shops use music to make customers stay longer or increase the likelihood that they purchase things,” she notes.’

This is exciting stuff for sure. As Arnal observes, ‘In the future, sound that provokes responses deep in our brains could be more thoughtfully designed into the built environment.’ But we humans are an adaptive lot. We quickly learn to ignore sounds that might have been initially distressing when we first heard them. Apart from the morbid curiosity aroused by it, an ambulance wailing past soon loses its relevance if there is no one nearby who needs it. And if it becomes a too frequent and unwelcome guest, surely the doors to our ears would quickly become unwilling to allow it entrance. I’m not advocating for the Luddites, though, just for an appreciation of Darwin.

Or, perhaps, for the sentiment of Oliver Wendell Holmes as he observed in one of his poems: And silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound.