How We Listen

Jan 18 2012

I recently read an interesting book called “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer.  In a nutshell, it broke down the human decision-making process into decisions made with our rational brain versus decisions made with our emotional brain.  The book was very interesting reading, going through various situations (from selecting strawberry jam to attempting to crash-land a plane) and talked about how decisions were made in those situations.

While reading, I began to think about how we listen to music and what parts of the brain we use while listening.  What strikes me most is how much that differs from person to person…

In one category you have non-musicians.  Essentially by definition, they listen to music primarily with their emotional brains.  This is simply because they haven’t been trained to analyze music rationally.  When I play a piece of music for a non-musician, I hear comments like “I liked it because it made me sad” or “I liked it because it reminded me of something in my life”.  These are fundamentally emotional responses to the music.

In the other category you have trained musicians.  While we listen to music emotionally on some level, we also listen to it very rationally.  When I play a piece of music for a trained musician, I hear comments about structure and form.  “I really like the way it changed meter here” or “I like the way that the theme came back with different instrumentation” or “I like the way it delayed the resolution to tonic” and so on.

Among musicians, you then have many sub-categories of people based on different rational preferences.  In essence, we all analyze the music rationally, but we disagree about what rational structures are inherently **good**.

I recently played a piece of music for two musicians.  The first musician said…  “I really like that it’s tonal.”  The second musician said…  “Well, it’s just too tonal for my tastes.”  Both musicians listened with their rational brain, analyzed the music’s harmonic structure and deemed it to use tonal harmony.  The first musician concluded that the tonal structure was a good thing.  The second musician concluded that the tonal structure was a bad thing.

I thought in this blog that I’d tell the above little story and then pose two questions…

Question 1

As trained musicians, our “rational brains” are extremely active when we listen.  We listen to music and break it down into structures and theory.  This raises the question…

What structures should be deemed inherently “good”?

Question 2

Given that musicians listen to music “rationally” and non-musicians listen to music “emotionally”, how does that affect us as creators of music?  Should it affect what we write?  Should it affect how we present our music to others?

I don’t believe that there are definitively right or wrong answers to these questions, but I thought they were worth posing.  Feel free to answer them to yourself or state your opinion as a comment on this blog.  After I’ve given you all a little time to respond, I’ll add my own two cents.

Welcome to 2012 everyone!

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    The rational side is nice, but the emotional side is crucial. That is what Schoenberg and crew got wrong. Despite their best intentions of furthering the development of Western music, they somehow took a left turn and forgot about the point.

    Perhaps I’m too commercially minded, but I think composers need to respect that most people in their audience are non-musicians. If you’re writing merely to be rational your music will not only be cold, it will also fail to resonate. And if it fails to connect with your listener, they won’t want to hear it.

    Interesting! I tend to think that a person’s background, musical and non-musical can influence what they think is good and what works. A person may use their background as a palette of colours and experience to draw what works for them.

    I recently completed an assignment where we had to orchestrate a simple melody. In my experience this little tune is commonly used in lots of different settings, almost more like a musical catch phrase. So rather than trying to prove otherwise my choice was to keep it light and maybe even comical. But had I never heard that particular melody before I would likely have made a very different decision.

    So how do I act? Rationally or emotionally? I attempt to do both. I think sometimes it’s a bit of a battle :) But my personal goal is to have them coexisting in balance. Why? Well more often than not, when you write, perform, or create music it is for some sort of purpose. Which brings in the rational side of the action. But as a human hopefully you have some sort of emotional reaction to the music. Actually it’s a little bit like life isn’t it! :)

    I ran into this many years ago as a comp. student at the University of North Texas. I was interested in film scoring – pretty much everyone else was into ‘experimental’ music.

    For example – one student SANG “Jesus Loves Me” through his trombone for his final… They thought it was brilliant. I thought it was a joke.

    Now – there IS (and always WILL be) a place for ‘music as art’ or ‘art for art’s sake’… I’m not arguing that fact.

    However – when a piece gets overly cerebral and really ‘out there’… the composer loses touch with the audience (assuming that the piece was designed to be heard).

    Very rarely will a piece be praised by every listener who hears it. But that doesn’t make it “bad”..

    In the same way, a seemingly simple piece shouldn’t automatically be dismissed as being juvenile… Nor should a complex-atonal-intellectual piece be considered great based solely on its structure.

    Great music will be defined differently by each person with a set of ears. My typical benchmark for greatness is goosebumps. There’s no distinct musical quality that produces the spine-tingling chemical reaction in my body — but if it’s there, it’s there.

    I can certainly appreciate the blood and guts of music — but that’s not why I like it. I like the emotions that I get FROM it.

    My job as a composer it to manipulate\massage\organize and breath life into that musical blood and guts — so that it produces the desired emotions.

    If a listener sits and hears my “I-iii-IV-iv-V-vi” progression – instead of the MUSIC, I haven’t done my job very well.

    In short (LOL) – musicians are a strange sounding board. As musicians, we will never be able to hear what the world sounds like to others. So, when asking a musician if something is “good”.. you’re asking the wrong set of ears.

    If I find myself truly feeling the emotion I’m trying to create – despair, playfulness, adventurous.. whatever… then, I know I’m on to something.

    I think that I’m somewhere in the middle. Certain types of music will interest me emotionally and some will turn on the analytical side of my brain. There are times, though, when both become active.

    “Good” is just too objective to define. I think, though, a composer needs to write for themselves first. If you don’t think it’s good, it’s very likely others will feel the same.

    I really think there is a middle ground on how we present our music to the masses. You may not be able to make everyone happy with your music but I think one can satisfy musicians and non-musicians alike. I suppose you need to think about your audience and go from there.

    To answer these question I need to ask myself first what am I trying to accomplish with the music, satisfy others or myself?
    To satisfy others you have to begin by understanding what others deem is good and incorporate those elements into the piece and they will like it
    To satisfy myself I can either create my own satisfying elements disregarding everything else, maybe what schoenberg did, but I can also satisfy myself by satisfying others

    I think that maybe there is an ideal balance in a musicians life. You learn about music, and you learn about life and humility..Hopefully you can get to the stage where all of your knowledge (whether basic or advanced) can quietly run in the background and let your creative ability and emotional experience be honestly reflected in music. When I hear these qualities in any genre , I appreciate them as being good.

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