Friday, September 24, 2010

Music and the Mind at NCSSM

This past week, I had the pleasure of team teaching an interdisciplinary class with NCSSM Anatomy and Physiology Instructor, Dr. Ashton Powell. We held two of his Anatomy and Physiology classes in the NCSSM music suite with the hopes of convening some thought provoking discussions on music, the mind, and their inter-connectivity.

We began each class with me giving a brief performance. My primary solo mode, as many of you know, is to create live audio loops on guitar (using a Boss RC 50) and then using my NS Design 5 string electric violin to play melodies and associated improvisations above the chord progressions. Following the performance, we began the class with discussions regarding the music, the process of making music, the process of listening to music, and a variety of other lines of thought that grew from the discussion. We discussed the communication process, the similarity to speech, the "spirit" of the music and relationship to tonality, and other a variety of other topics.

Next, we watched and discussed three extraordinary videos which I am sure that many of you have seen.

A. The TED Video of Bobby McFerrin leading an audience in a magnificent sing-along using the pentatonic scale.

Following this video, I gave a brief explanation of the pentatonic scale and then showed the students how one can create basic melodies with the pentatonic scale. Next, I showed them how other scales can generate a very different aural reaction. For these, I used a major scale, a mixolydian scale, a blues scale, and a chromatic scale. The student reaction and conversation was quite interesting and thoughtful.

B. A news clip of Oliver Sacks undergoing an MRI study of his brain's reaction to an excerpt of Bach vs. a similar excerpt of Beethoven.

The general idea of the clip is that Sacks' mind was significantly more active when listening to the Bach clip, possibly because he generally likes Bach more than Beethoven. Further, even when he wasn't sure which composer was being played, his mind was still more active during the Bach clip. I must admit, I found this news clip to fall a bit short for me. As I listened to the excerpts that they used, I found the Bach clips to have more dissonance and tension, therefore, potentially requiring more brain activity. The Beethoven clips seemed to be more consonant and I didn't find them to be indicative, at all, of the emotion that one finds in Beethoven's greatest works: his symphonies. On the other hand, this was not a referendum on Bach vs. Beethoven. It was merely a referendum on Oliver Sack's preference of Bach to Beethoven. The study, itself, was very interesting and I do find it quite interesting that our mind is significantly more active when listening to material that we find pleasurable or challenging at some level. No surprising, but fascinating.

C. A news piece of an MRI study of brain activity when playing composed music vs. playing improvised music.

I found this clip to be quite interesting, especially as I perform both composed classical literature and improvised music on a regular basis. The general idea is that the brain is exceedingly active when playing composed music and many parts of the brain essentially shut down when improvising. I must say that I don't find this hard to believe at all. Here is an example from my personal experience. Last night, I played my music for a reception held by the Eastern NC Chapter of the National MS Society. I performed my own music and spent approximately 80% of the evening improvising over my own melodies. This was an enjoyable evening and I did not find it to be physically taxing in any way. On the other hand, last June, I was invited to play the prelude music for our NCSSM Online Commencement ceremony. It was slated to be about a 20 minute recital. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, the ceremony was late in starting and I ended up playing for about a solid 75 minutes. This was one of the most exhausting performances I have given in many years. It wasn't that the music was so difficult. But, the mental energy that it required was clearly significantly more than a comparable length improvisational performance. Thus, I found this study to be on the mark in many ways. Interestingly, when polled before seeing the film clip, the students almost unanimously, felt that the improvisational performances would require more brain energy because the performer would be doing something extemporaneously. Now, all of us improvisers know that there isn't a great deal that we do in an improvisational performance that we haven't tried at some point or another prior to permutation of the song. I would liken in to speech. Which takes more brain energy: an extemporaneous conversation for 10 minutes OR a recitation of a 10 minute poem by another author. I believe the "composed" poem requires a great deal more brain energy. Again, the correlations between music and speech are apparently quite strong.

We ended the class with a short drum circle, giving every student the opportunity to experience music performance and improvisation in a non-threatening way. I think that the kids really enjoyed this and would have kept going with the drum circle long after the class period had ended!

This was a wonderful day of thoughtful scholarship, intelligent conversation, and free exchange of ideas and academic curiosity. It was everything that NCSSM should be. It was everything that school should be.

I went home that day with a real feeling of satisfaction that we had facilitated some higher order thinking and potentially unlocked some real interest for many of the students. I also really feel strongly that making connections between disciplines is an important part of the educational process. I feel like that happened in a concrete way today. I love being a teacher! May we all have similar experiences in our unique teaching experiences - in and outside of the classroom!


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