About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

April 16, 2013


by Carl Ellenberger, MD

I talked with a teenager about music. Not a typical teenager but one in a third generation of a musical family: grandfather an orchestra conductor, father on the board of the local symphony. 

Soon to be a high school grad, teenager had passed the "magic age" at which musical taste is determined according to musical psychologist Daniel Levitin:
Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes. You’re in the ninth grade, confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool — the capital of young life. Musical tastes become a badge of identity in social contexts framed by pop culture.
(That observation held true for me: I invaded my father's collection of 12-inch 78-rpm records at about that age.)
Teenager intends to become an audio engineer, so he got an earful about loud music. (See "Treasure Your Hearing, October 8) Teenager sagely responded: "Your generation" is accustomed to music in small spaces (the drawing room?) played (by historical necessity) on 'acoustic' (old) instruments. Music of his generation has evolved with modern technology (read electrical amplification) into a 'greater dynamic range' (read loud), all intending to mean, I assume, more advanced and better suited for our time.

My brain whirred: what about intimacy, silence, and (horrors!) pianissimo? But I soon decided I couldn't begin to summon the eloquence of AndrĂ© Aciman:
Chamber music makes you just as you are and with whatever you’ve got the center of everything. It reminds you of yourself. In fact, it makes you not think of yourself, because the act of thinking about something, even if it’s about yourself, distracts you from being with yourself. Chamber music brings you into a state of perfect congruence with yourself of harmony, where, if there’s a thought, it’s not how beautiful this is, but something like perfect gratitude. It is after all what we feel when a miracle happens: we don’t sit and ponder how miracles happen; we are simply grateful that they do. And with that gratitude comes love. Saint Augustine’s definition of love is the most beautiful: I am grateful that you exist. That’s good enough. Chamber music is intimate not just because it takes place in small spaces with few players. It is intimate because it is direct. It is intimate because there is absolutely nothing, save standing in a holy place, where you can be closer to those things that are timeless, to God, to yourself.   
I re-discovered Saturday night that also applies to a large degree to a concert in Walt Disney Hall by the exquisite LA Philharmonic. It certainly does to our concerts (at least the 'acoustic' ones) that will resume in July in the Mt. Gretna Playhouse.

Obviously, this is not just generational.

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