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.

April 14, 2016

Our Summer of Love

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

“As much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. 

And—I would argue as well—all love....”

--The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 

From Shakespeare’s “thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings” to  [I❤️My Labradoodle] “love” is an overused word. Love you, as we say goodbye to a friend. Give her my love. Love your necklace! I’d love to, in response to an invitation. I love you, from the silenced lips of a diva throwing kisses to a raving audience. ’Google’ “love” for 4.6 trillion more examples!

The word defies definition; dictionaries suggest affection more intense than the equally common word “like.” I like Justice Potter Stewart’s workaround: “I know it when I see it” (applied to an even more problematic word) but time has not always proved me right. 

Ancient Greeks worshipped an Olympian goddess, Aphrodite, who with her companion Eros, embodied erotic love as well as beauty, pleasure and procreation. Their word, agápē served for universal transcendent love between God(s) and mankind, and philēo expressed brotherly love. It makes sense to break up a broad concept into manageable pieces. For most serious observers love has a purely spiritual source uninfluenced by external social pressures. St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13) considered love as God’s spiritual gift to humans:

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Poets may have the best chance at a definition in words:
Love is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.
—Emily Dickinson

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
—Kahlil Gibran

Over the centuries what has shaped our concept of love most strongly has been art. “It is through novels, poems, songs and, latterly, films that we have acquired our ideas about what aspects of our feelings we should value and where our emotional emphases should fall.” (Alain de Botton in Financial Times, Apr 22, 2016) “This is unfortunate,” he continues. “It’s not that the art has been bad; indeed a lot of it has reached the highest aesthetic pitch. It’s simply that representations of love in culture have frequently been profoundly misleading at the psychological level.” Too bad, he muses, that Madame Bovary could not have read Flaubert’s novel before she decided her marriage was humdrum and began her ultimately fatal flings!

Part of the problem could be that scientists have yet to discover how to measure love, though we can quantify memory and intelligence and blood pressure. Can we use the duration of a kiss? The eloquence of an expression? Fervor measured in kilowatt hours? In dark moods I may think that true love will be revealed by the one who comforts me when I’m dying. Psychologists use the word “limerence” to stand for an almost instantaneous but short-lasting bloom of attraction that eventually fades (often leaving all sorts of problems). Even long-lasting love seems to vary in quality and apparent intensity over a lifetime. Love eludes measurement as well as a clinical definition. 

Scientists can measure the hormone oxytocin, endorphins, and the brain neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that ‘mediate’ emotional experiences such as pleasure in close relationships. They flow among ‘pleasure’ regions in the brain: the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens and the insula, the parts of the brain also most affected by addictive drugs. But none of these measurements help much to understand love in daily life.

Music, In pathways parallel to language, activates similar neural networks in the brain, and stimulates the same neurotransmitters and hormones as love and other pleasures. Ancient Greek actors sang their tragedies to enhance the emotional impact of the stories. 

The Met Opera’s recent premiere of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux demonstrated the awesome power of love — loving is indeed "playing with fire,” both its needed and welcoming heat as well as its power to destroy—and showed how music can express that power. Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann knew this as did other composers including Gustav Mahler:“With songs one can express so much more than the words directly say…. The text actually constitutes only a hint of the deeper content that is to be drawn out of it, of the treasure that is to be hauled up.”  The Met’s Elektra demonstrated the awesome power of music to bring an ancient tragedy back to a new life after thousands of years, and remain truly hair-raising to humans living now.

Love is rarely more powerful than when it is lost, through death and by leaving and being left. “. . . there is no way in the world that one can talk, sing or write about love without facing the powerful element of loss that is inherent in loving someone, as well as the everlasting hold it has on one when that love is joyful and connected, profound and caring, and passionate, which is what I feel for you. It is something I am unwilling to give up just yet, which creates its own dilemma given the complete uncertainty of our lives . . . . (anon.)   Music, poetry and art enter the picture here too as both a means of expressing the pain of loss and for healing and of solace. 

Music can also be a sexual stimulant, though you may argue that some contemporary performers go beyond civilized limits to engage pubescent 14-year-olds just in process of developing life-long musical taste and identities. Musical psychologist, Dan Levitin, also claims that couples who spend time listening to music ‘out loud’ together make love more frequently than those who listen in solitude through ear buds. ‘Out loud’ music in homes, he further claims, makes entire families happier. 

And think of it: music on our stage synchronizes the brain activity of all of us sitting together in the audience! Your mind might wander to the “Furtwängler concerts,” music of German masters— Bruckner, Beethoven, Wagner — broadcast in 1944 Germany and heard by both the “free” German people and inmates of Buchenwald through the camp public address system. Music finds its special conduits among humans.

As agápē inspired Bach, love inspires other composers. Robert Schumann must have made Clara Weick feel abundantly loved by courting her with over 200 love songs, such as “Widmung” (“Dedication”) played with other Schumann love songs for us by Lise de la Salle on Aug 14. Friedrich Rückert wrote the words: “You are my heart and soul, my bliss and pain, my heaven, my good angel, my better self.” As you listen, note how the music can make those words, though only imagined in the piano version, more powerful. After Clara married Schumann their love and his compositions changed. He dedicated his Piano Quintet (July 31) to Clara, as Wagner later composed Siegfried Idyll as a present for his wife, Cosima (July 10). 

Long after Robert’s death Clara and Brahms remained unmarried lovers for the rest of their lives. Late in life Brahms dedicated to Clara Six Piano Pieces, op.118, in my view some of the most poignant instrumental expressions of love. I wish we could have played those pieces for the two lovely ladies we have lost since last summer, Nancy Hatz, age 100 and Pat Pinsler, age 89, in return for their abiding love of music and Mt. Gretna, though Leon Fleisher’s All the Things You Are by Jerome Kern was a perfect farewell for Nancy. She threw a kiss to Leon from the front row.

Humans have always made music. Some scientists argue that it has endured since the appearance of our species (homo sapiens, maybe even earlier) because those who play or sing may have an evolutionary selective advantage: singers (and dancers like BalletX on Sept 3), may pass on their genes more often than their less expressive, or less graceful, competitors.

We arrived at “love” as a programming theme for this summer in a roundabout way, first landing at “Sweet Sixteen” but then remembering that 2017 will be the 50th Anniversary of the original “Summer of Love” in San Francisco and around the world, though some of us remained more or less oblivious to that until afterwards. (I was in the Army.) We quickly realized that Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead have passed on and probably wouldn’t appeal to our audiences. And none of us knew where to find any good acid anyway. This summer we’ll venture only so far toward Haight-Ashbury as Hollywood. (Alexis Cole sings her unique versions of Disney love songs on July 28.)

Our choice of love for a theme this summer may prove prescient as the election year unfolds. We hope our concerts will replenish love in the air, at least in our neighborhood and in your hearts, after its trampling during a long tedious and rancorous election season.

More summer highlights not mentioned above include: a Dvorak Romance (July 31), Sibelius’ The Lovers  and Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night (July 10), Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (August 14). Many more lovely works to come are listed in this booklet.

We hope you have had love in your life. Without it, and music of course, life is hardly worth living.

The late harpsichordist, Doris Ornstein, and the author 
discussing Bach in 1989 in Lancaster’s St. James Church