In This Is Your Brain on Music, a groundbreaking union of art and science, rocker-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explores the connection between music – its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it – and the human brain.
How do people become expert musicians? And why is that of the millions of people who take music lessons as children, relatively few continue to play music as adults?
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. Although many people say that music lessons didn’t take, cognitive neuroscientists have found otherwise in their laboratories.
Even just a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced and more efficient than for those who lack training. Music lessons teach us to listen better, and they accelerate our ability to discern structure and form in music, making it easier for us to tell what music we like and what we don’t like.
The scientific study of expertise has been a major topic within cognitive science for the past thirty years
The late Michael Howe, and his collaborators Jane Davidson and John Sloboda, launched an international debate when they asked whether they ‘lay’ notion of talent is scientifically defensible. They assume the following dichotomy:
Either high levels of musical achievement are based on innate brain structures (what we refer to as talent) or they are simply the result of training and practice.
They define talent as something
1. That originates in genetic structures;
2. That is identifiable at an early stage by trained people who can recognize it even before exceptional levels of performance have been acquired;
3. That can be used to predict who is likely to excel; and
4. That only a minority can be identified as having because if everyone were ‘talented’ the concept would lose meaning.
The strongest evidence for the talent position is that some people simply acquire musical skills more rapidly than others
The evidence against the talent account comes from research on how much training the experts or high achievement people actually do.
Like experts in mathematics, chess, or sports, experts in music require lengthy periods of instruction and practice in order to acquire the skills necessary to truly excel. In several studies, the very best conservatory students were found to have practiced the most, sometimes twice as much as those who weren’t judged as good.
Some people have a biological predisposition toward particular instuments, or toward singing
There may also be a cluster of genes that work together to create the component skills that one must have to become a successful musician: good eye-hand coordination, muscle control, motor control, tenacity, patience, memory for certain kinds of structures and patterns, a sense of rythm and timing.
To be a good musician, one must have these things. Some of these skills are involved in becoming a great anything, especially determination, self-confidence, and patience.
Musical expertise takes technical and emotional forms
Many performers have a personal magnetism, or charisma, that is independent of any other abilities they may or may not have. When Sting is singing, we can’t take our ears off of him. When Miles Davis is playing the trumpet, or Eric Clapton the guitar, an invisible force seems to draw us toward him. I call this phonogenic.
Expertise in any domain is characterized by a superior memory, but only for things within the domain of expertise
When musicians memorize songs, then, they are relying on a structure for their memory, and the details fit into that structure. This is an efficient and parsimonious way for the brain to function. Rather than memorizing every chord or every note, we build up a framework within which many different songs can fit, a mental template that can accomodate a large number of musical pieces.
Being an expert musician thus takes many forms
Dextery at playing an instrument, emotional communication, creativity, and special mental structures for remembering music. Being an expert listener, which most of us are by age six, involves having incorporated the grammar of our musical culture into mental schemas that allow us to form musical expectations, the heart of the aesthetic experience in music.
How all these various forms of expertise are acquired is still a neuroscientific mystery.