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The Song Lines

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The song lines

By Blair Tindall

Published: December 15 2007 00:40 | Last updated: December 15 2007 00:40

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
By Alex Ross
Farrar Straus and Giroux $30, 640 pages

The Making of Music: A Journey With Notes
By James Naughtie
John Murray £7.99, 400 pages
FT bookshop price: £6.39

This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession
By Daniel Levitan
Atlantic £17.99, 320 pages
FT bookshop price: £14.39

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
By Oliver Sacks
Picador £17.99, 400 pages
FT bookshop price: £14.39

On a Wednesday in 2001, stillness hung in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, an eerie contrast to the usual pre-concert hubbub. The World Trade Center had fallen fewer than 24 hours before, and most of California was shut down in disbelief and bewilderment – plays, nightclubs and restaurants were darkened. But the San Francisco Symphony followed through with its planned performance of the Sixth, or “Tragic”, Symphony of Gustav Mahler. Apprehension, even guilt, veiled an audience unsure how to mourn, yet struggling for a connection with others, and for some explanation of a colossal tragedy.

As Michael Tilson Thomas stepped on to the podium in silence, the crowd seemed to bond – steeping themselves in music was the only response they could truly share, something celestial to salve what would be a perpetual wound. From the first A major chord turning sinister and dark, 2,000 strangers felt as one through to the famous hammer-blows of fate in the final movement. It was a sensation that eluded words, and that I could not explain. So why and how does music affect such profound, wordless valleys of the soul, crossing socio-economic borders and imprinting itself in parallels with human experience, history and memory?

In his stunning narrative, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, The New Yorker’s visionary music critic Alex Ross comes closer than anyone to describing the spellbinding sensations music provokes. “Strands of melody intertwined like vegetation bursting out of the earth,” writes Ross, drawing out the opening bassoon solo of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In works as complex as those of Stravinsky and Mahler, Ross bypasses theoretical analysis and instead describes the yearning for music, or a human magnetism for sound. “It sounds like music’s revenge on an unmusical world, noise trampling on noise,” he writes, of the powerful effect of Mahler’s second and third symphonies on the listener’s mind and body. At the same time, he tells the story of how art splintered from life in the 20th century – and how barriers that divide popular and “classical” music are blurring once again. “The symphony must be like the world,” Ross quotes Mahler, going on to argue that Eurocentric ideas of classical music embrace people of myriad cultures but speak to the universal spirit.

Ross’s book leads a new genre of cultural writing – one that explores the mysteries of music in layman’s terms, weaving a tale of art as expression, balm for the soul, and a response to both turmoil and peace. The Rest is Noise spins out seamlessly and is a joy to read. Literary gifts are rare among music writers, but Ross shadows musicians and their intimate worlds in vibrant detail.

James Naughtie’s The Making of Music accompanies the author’s BBC radio series, and expands Ross’s narrative across 10 centuries, creating a well-written musical overview in this chronology of art and era. Beginning with the 13th-century innovation of organ pedals and polyphonic music, Naughtie tours decades of invention, imitation, turbulence – to the 1960s, when, he writes, political artists such as composer Hans Werner Henze lost hope in a musical revolution that could elevate the pop-culture proletariat.

Both Naughtie and Ross illustrate the excitement and emotion of music – an art that’s notoriously subjective and difficult to quantify. It’s the subject of endless fascination, and perhaps a mystery with no true resolution. In my own years as a professional musician, the primal entropy I felt in the centre of an orchestra playing The Rite of Spring belied the order and form that I saw in musical notation, and in the neat mathematics of Stravinsky’s construction. What, I wondered, is this power – could it possibly be understood, or harnessed to allow music to speak, or even heal?

In the 1990s, the neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel switched his interest from ant behaviour to the study of music and the brain. A pioneer in this nascent field, Patel researched the process by which the mind absorbs music and language. He primarily used subjects with aphasia, the loss of ability to understand speech, and amusia, an acquired lack of music perception following brain damage. Patel concluded that music and language were not independent mental faculties, but complex processes that are sometimes shared. This idea was further explored by scientists at Canada’s McGill University, who identified brain areas consistent with intense musical pleasure.

Today, some 250 neuroscientists study the effect of music on the brain. Two recent books popularise their discoveries for a general audience: Daniel Levitan’s This is Your Brain on Music, and Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia. Both Levitan, a scientist, and Sacks, a doctor, are also accomplished performers who communicate complex scientific ideas easily: the classical musician Sacks, through observing the patients he treats, and Levitan, a former record producer who has played back-up saxophone for Mel Torme, through an ambitious simplification of music theory and its effects on brain activity.

Sacks first wrote about music when he noted its phenomenal effects on Parkinsonian patients in 1966, and notes that nothing on the subject could be found in physiology texts until 1977. Yet he found the aural world affected nearly every brain function, and became fascinated with clinical observations of people who experienced the musical hallucinations of tunes that aren’t there, stop muscle tics only while playing piano, or develop hypermusical skills through their loss of sight. In one poignant case, however, the subject satisfies a performer’s revenge fantasy: one 19th-century music critic first convulsed during a Meyerbeer opera, his seizures then progressed so dramatically that he fled in terror at the sight of a street band, fingers stuffed in his ears. The distraught journalist later described the affliction in his pamphlet Fear of Music.

Brain injuries sometimes bring about unique effects. In 1994, lightning surged through the body of a New York surgeon, writes Sacks. Soon after, he started craving classical piano music, although it had never interested him, and taught himself to play at a fairly expert level in his forties. Though many were curious about his brain physiology, he chose to leave his brain unexamined, considering his new passion “a lucky strike, and the music, however it had come, a blessing, a grace – not to be questioned”.

Other graces come to musical savants – for example, those who communicate fluently through melody even though they’re retarded, autistic, or suffering from amnesia. In his 1973 book, Awakenings, Sacks himself described victims of a sleeping sickness springing to life through music (and the then-new drug L-Dopa). Brain injuries also sometimes leave patients with little chance to communicate outside of the music buried in memory. After the musicologist Clive Wearing endured herpes encephalitis – a brain infection which restricted his memory to a period of seconds – his ability to play and read music remained, even though he could not remember what he had just performed.

Hidden and dormant at times, musical affinity is so innate that it precedes language, and indeed is formed in utero, says Levitan. In one study, researchers found that year-old babies preferred works their mothers had listened to while pregnant, rather than those heard in the year since birth. The results turned the idea of early childhood memory on its head – proving that events before the age of five can be definitively encoded.

A rarer example is synesthesia – in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in another. People with this condition experience music as a colour, smell or taste. The composer Michael Torke sees the key of D major as “blue”. Another musician, recalls Sacks, translates intervals into specific tastes – sour and bitter for dissonant major and minor seconds, but pure water, mown grass, or no taste at all for the resonant intervals of a perfect fourth, fifth, or octave.

Such is the language of music for non-musicians, according to Levitan. In a study to determine which subjects had absolute pitch – the almost-mythic ability to identify notes – he renamed “C” and “G” as “Fred” and “Ethel” and asked people to memorise the sounds. Once separated from their tuning forks for a week, the subjects overwhelmingly identified their pitches when played on a keyboard. His conclusion? Absolute pitch may be learnable, and not rare at all.

The objective path to music may be part of the answer for an art form that has alienated new audiences with its jargon, ritual and elitist assumptions about how it should be enjoyed. “The chasm between musical experts and everyday musicians that has grown so wide in our culture makes people feel discouraged, and for some reason this is uniquely so with music,” writes Levitan, who questions whether the lay notion of talent is scientifically sound, or whether it’s simply years of disciplined practising that accounts more for musical expertise.

Indeed, Sacks notes that anatomists using imaging techniques can identify the brains of professional musicians, which exhibit increased volumes of grey matter in specific locations, and an occasionally asymmetric enlargement of the tissue connecting the brain’s hemispheres. The peculiarities of musical brains strongly correlate with the age at which training began. Yet scientists could not similarly point out the brains of visual artists, writers or mathematicians.

Much of music neuroscience research illustrates the importance of early music education, even in the general population. Propaganda roars over “The Mozart Effect” – a 1993 study which concluded that listening to Mozart could improve short-term reasoning. This was grossly commercialised by entrepreneur Don Campbell, who promised reward for chugging Bach like wheatgrass juice. Additional research surrounding early musical training, however, pleads for an essential brain development that may translate to other abilities – as musicians possess more synapses after acquiring motor skills, and listeners enhance certain neural circuits in the auditory cortex.

Whatever the research, the data of brain science may never quite be able to measure the musical chills or emotions stirred by a certain timbre, modulation or simple melody. In the final chorus of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, text and tone meld in a lamentation of the crucifixion. Yet, as the orchestra winds to its ultimate chord, a lone flute stubbornly holds a dissonant seventh – wailing, unwilling to surrender, an unbearable dissonance at last settling into clean resonance, and an inexplicable, yet universal, eternity.

Blair Tindall is author of ‘Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music’ (Grove/Atlantic Press)

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