Wednesday, March 05, 2008

I guess I'll have to tell 'em I got no cerebellum

I've had a passing interest in music cognition for a while. I was often a test subject for the McGill music cognition studies - I got a free lunch out of it, but it was interesting to see what they were testing and ultimately what the results were. In my final year of school I took a couple of linguistics courses, and while I wasn't especially good at neurolinguistics, I thought it telling to see parts of the brain responsible for certain areas of language also responsible for music, as well as other functions. Over the past year or two, Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music and Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia have brought music cognition to a wider audience, and some of the studies and anecdotes within are absolutely fascinating.

So today, via Ropeadope: This is Your Brain While Improvising. The most intriguing finding of the study was this:
The researchers explain that, just as over-thinking a jump shot can cause a basketball player to fall out of the zone and perform poorly, the suppression of inhibitory, self-monitoring brain mechanisms helps to promote the free flow of novel ideas and impulses. While this brain pattern is unusual, it resembles the pattern seen in people when they are dreaming.
This would address, I guess, the stories of "dreaming music" and all the various pseudo-new age terms we use to describe improvising: letting go, telling a story, play what you hear, etc. I've had discussions with students and colleagues lately about this. When asked, "What do you think about when you improvise?" I honestly answer that I'm not really thinking; if I am it's about the general shape and sound of the line, but not what goes into it. I always return to the cliché music-as-language analogy: to be fluent in a foreign language, one has to get past actively thinking about the constructs of the grammar and translating words, you have to learn enough of it and internalize it so that you can naturally have a conversation.

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