Thursday, October 07, 2010

Not a sound on the pavement

Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

Marcel Proust
Swann’s Way, “Overture”

No, you have not stumbled into a Theory of Knowledge class. No, I am not less sane than usual. Yes, it will be another one of “those” columns. Climb aboard the ride and pull down the safety bar .

It is sometimes the smallest things that will have the greatest effect. As music teachers we build associations to many hundreds of pieces of music through performances throughout our careers. Not only do we remember the musical details, but we remember the entire scene of the performance and in some cases events around it.

Stop and think of a piece of music that you have performed. Pick any one. Get the sound of that piece going in your mental music player. Can you see the venue where the performance took place? What were you wearing? Who else was performing with you? Can you see it from your point of view as a performer or as an outside observer? Now the catch - what emotion are you feeling? Are you remembering the emotions of that performance, the emotions that surrounded that time in your life, a mixture of both, or some strange mixture you can’t quite determine?

Brain researchers have been exploring these phenomena, amongst others. Using MRI scans and prompts requiring the subject to remember events or perform tasks they are identifying areas of activity in the brain that correspond to a variety of activities. In one study they showed a silent movie that had a variety of sounds visually depicted - here’s the description by Ian Sample writing in The Guardian:
Volunteers clambered into an MRI scanner and watched silent movie clips. Each five second video included a scene that implied a sound. There were animals in action: a howling dog, a mooing cow, a crowing cock. There were musical instruments: a violin, a bass and a piano key being struck. Three final videos showed a chainsaw cutting down a tree, coins being tossed into a glass and a vase being dropped and smashed. All played out in silence, but even typing that I could hear the buzz of the saw, the sharp clink of coins, the crash of the vase. Like the author, I presume that as you were reading the descriptions of the scenes you created the sounds in your mind’s ear.
The study then goes on to raise what may be the answer to why we became involved in music education. According to the lead scientist in the study, Kaspar Meyer, the visual stimulus would not trigger the the mind’s ear to hear the sound if we had never made those sounds or seen and heard those sounds being simultaneously made.

It is our task to create the opportunities for our students to build those aural, physical and emotional associations. We tend to call them by the mundane names of practice, rehearsals and performances. By creating for them the best environment to build that framework of emotions and sensations we recalled in our earlier exercise, we do the most to influence their development as musicians, learners and citizens of the world.

And the best part is, we benefit as well.