Friday, June 29, 2012

This is Your Brain on Avant-Garde Music

My apologies for not posting more frequently. Too many other things claiming my time lately and I have a couple of posts simmering that ended up taking a lot more time to put together. You will see them in a day or so. But in the meantime I ran across an article in the Telegraph that I missed when it came out. The title is "Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope." You should go read the article. You just know I'm going to be all over that one! My first reaction is "musicians hate modern journalism because it is written by people who have little musical knowledge (journalists) talking about research done by people with even less (scientists)."


This passage is rather interesting:

Mr Ball believes that many traditional composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven subconsciously followed strict musical formula to produce music that was easy on the ear by ensuring it contained patterns that could be picked out by the brain.In the early twentieth century, however, composers led by Schoenberg began to rally against the traditional conventions of music to produce compositions which lack tonal centres, known as atonal music.
 Filtered through the ignorance of the journalist, it is sometimes hard to tell if the source, Mr. Ball in this case, is also musically ignorant. "Many traditional composers subconsciously followed strict musical formula [sic]"? How bizarre! As if they simply had no conscious awareness of what they were doing! I would be a lot more sympathetic to these fumbling efforts to do research into music if the researchers did not constantly exhibit the most insulting condescension to their subject matter: composers and music.

My two basic problems with this article and virtually all the others in the popular press on music is that they display such a shallow understanding of music as to be barely worth reading and due to this, the research and   the report on it are so misleading as to constitute misinformation about music.

For example, one researcher says in the article that the structures of modern music lead to
an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and the constant failures to anticipate what will happen next means that there is no pleasure from accurate prediction."
If you happened to know something about how music is structured and how all composers constantly set up expectations and defeat them, then you could talk about this with a little more significance.

There are three areas in which you need to have real knowledge and understanding before you can write about music. These are

  • The history of music
  • The theory of music
  • The aesthetics of music
A little knowledge of these would not only have enabled this research, which has some interesting aspects, to be more accurate and more useful, but could have communicated the results more effectively. To end, "Smoke on the Water", chosen as a test for some "brainwave" research.


Joel Lo Observador said...

I usually agree with you in the science-music problem, but this time I think I'm gonna give them some credit.

"Mr Ball" is Philip Ball the writer of "The Music Instinct" (I liked that book). Of Course he speaks more in the cold, objective, scientific existence of music but it turns out that... well I think he's right in his conclussions (scientificly speaking).

It's the same that you have said here in your blog, but comparing pop vs classic, we all know about the richness and complexity that requieres more "brain" (more attention actually) in classical.
There's no secret at the end. This is simply the way a scientist says that people love more simpleness.

Even if the journalists and scientists had the right knowledge in history, theory and aestethics... they would make the same statements. They're describing the "normal" audience, the "pop" audience, and that's an audience that doesn't have knowledge of aesthetics or theory. Let's accept that knowledge is needed for apreciating Schoenberg or Webern. Just with knowledge (culture, some would say) we can confront this "normalness" in the brain that current culture give us. But in the meantime, when a scientist wants to say somenthing about apreciation of music, they have to use the most representative sample: common people.

Por cierto ¿puedo comentar en español? Creo haber leído que estás en México. Saludos.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Joel,

Yes, I suspect you are right. As I was saying, after the journalist gets through with it, it is sometimes hard to tell what the original thought was.

It is true, of course, that the patterns in the music of Schoenberg are much harder to follow. Indeed, the very choice of 12-tone method defeats any real harmonic tension and release, which creates, for most people "an overwhelming feeling of confusion."

Si, como no! Puede comentar en español. Pero, para mi, esta mi cuarto idioma!