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

April 25, 2016

Purple BRain

The unexpected death last week caused me try to recall what planet I lived on when Prince burst onto the stages of earth. Before last week if someone had mentioned "Purple Rain" I would have imagined some kind of climate aberration. I was trying to make a go as a medical associate professor and celebrating the fact that Gretna Music had just signed Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, George Shearing and members of the Chicago Symphony to our summer concert schedule. Prince was a star that appeared at the far edge of my universe.

Until last week I could not have named any of the songs that have become, beyond my awareness, cultural treasures known to more humans than the combined songs of Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and maybe even Walt Disney. My aging ears can't even understand the words. The performance video clips celebrating Prince's life are all new to me.

Now at first hearing much of the music sounds to me like other rock music: loud, harmonically, lyrically and rhythmically simple, opaquely arranged, and frankly uninteresting. The costumes and prancing around resemble angry aggressive preening male strutting. Lights, smoke, sexual gestures are all apparently necessary to hold the attention of younger generations who probably can't find middle C on a piano. It's more about performance, and social commentary, than music.

I admit I am missing something important, that Prince was an example of new and valid music, that he was probably a genius, that he was a wonderful and charitable human, the loss of whom I mourn. I wish I had paid more attention to his work and learned to understand it and know him. I am embarrassed that my behavior is exactly what I have criticized in others, in particular the tendency to arbitrarily categorize music made by humans, confine my listening to just one or two categories and dismiss the others as not worthy of my time.

So why don't I understand Prince? I can think of two reasons, though there are undoubtedly more. 1) Dan Levitin, musical psychologist, says:

"Fourteen is a sort of magical age for the development of musical tastes. Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity."
At age 14 I was playing in an orchestra at Interlochen. When Prince arrived, my musical tastes at age 40+ were set and my brain was less receptive to new ones, though not totally unreceptive.

2) I didn't listen to rock music (Elvis at my age of 14, others after). When my brain was most receptive, during my first two decades, I listened to Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. Tastes laid down early are fed by listening through life.

If I understood, maybe I would have a fuller life. I am not alone in this. Others close to me have told me the same. But before you label us as compleat musical snobs, tell me how many of Schubert's songs you can name. Here's the best obit I have seen.

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