Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Music and the mind

In September, I started taking piano lessons.

I've played the piano off and on for years (more off than on, I'm afraid), but was entirely self-taught.  To say my formal music background is thin is an understatement; I had a lousy experience with elementary school band, said "to hell with it," and that was the end of my music education in public schools.  However, I was (and am) deeply in love with music, so I picked up the flute at age sixteen, and taught myself how to play it.  I took four years of lessons with a wonderful flutist and teacher named Margaret Vitus when I was in my twenties, but until last fall those accounted for the sum total of my instruction in music of any sort.

My experience as a student -- both with Margaret forty-odd years ago, and with J. P. (my piano teacher) now -- has been interesting from a number of standpoints.  In both cases I profited greatly by having someone tell me what bad habits are holding me back, and (more importantly) what I can do to remediate them.  But my spotty background has resulted in some unique challenges.  On the upside, I have an extraordinary ear and memory for melodies and rhythms, to the point that my wife calls it my "superpower."  I once heard a piece of Serbian music in a Balkan dance class when I was in my twenties, and heard it again thirty years later, and immediately knew it was the same tune even though I hadn't heard it or played it during that time.  

The downside, though, is that my lack of formal training means there are great gaping holes in my knowledge.  I'm currently working on a charming and whimsical piece by Claude Debussy, "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum," which like much of Debussy's music twists around our sense of keys and harmonies. 

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Every day, practice, practice, practice."

So J. P. -- for whom music is about as natural as breathing -- will look at some passage, and say something that sounds like, "Oh, that's a B-flat Minor Seven Demented chord."  Once I analyze what he told me using paper, pencil, and a slide rule, after three or four hours of study I can usually say, "Oh, okay, I guess I get it," but it definitely isn't anything close to intuitively obvious.  Like, ever.  So I'm still at the point of having to read each note slowly and painstakingly, and although I think the piece is lovely (well, when someone else plays it), I don't have any real comprehension of its structure.

If you're curious, here's how it's supposed to sound:

Fortunately, J. P. is an extraordinary teacher and gets my struggles, and is working to help me fill in the gaps in my knowledge.  It's slow going, but I guess that's no different from anyone learning a musical instrument.

The reason this comes up today is a study by a team from the University of L'Aquila and the University of Teramo that discovered an interesting correlation; people who have studied music seriously have better working memory -- the ability to retrieve and load information into their "attentional stream."  Stronger and faster working memory is positively associated with a greater capacity for divergent thinking, and thus the facilitation of creativity.

The authors write:

Musical practices have recently attracted the attention of research focusing on their creative properties and the creative potential of musicians.  Indeed, a typical cliché of musicians is that they are considered predominantly artistic individuals, meaning that they are creative and original.  Practicing music is certainly an intense and multisensory experience that requires the acquisition and maintenance of a range of cognitive and motor skills throughout a musician’s life.  Indeed, music practice increases a wide range of cognitive abilities, such as visuospatial reasoning, processing speed, and [working memory], from the early stages of life.  For this reason, musicians are considered an excellent human model for the study of behavioral, cognitive, and brain effects in the acquisition, practice, maintenance, and integration of sensory, cognitive, and motor skills...

[E]xperience in the music field enhances [divergent thinking] in terms of fluency, flexibility, and originality.  Strengthening the associative modes of processing, which facilitate the retrieval of information from long-term memory, and improving the working memory competences, which facilitate the online recombination of information, might explain the relationship between musical practice and [divergent thinking].

All of which bolsters something I've been saying for years; we need to be actively supporting art and music in schools.  Sadly, school boards much more often have the opposite mentality -- the esteemed "STEM" subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) are emphasized and thus funded, and the arts (sometimes derisively called "extras") are on the chopping block when money gets tight.

Which, of course, is all the time.  But wouldn't it be nice if the educational powers-that-be actually read the research, and acknowledged that music and art are every bit as important as STEM?

In any case, it's good to know that my struggling to learn piano might provide some other benefits besides making Debussy turn over in his grave.  Hell, at age 63, I'm thrilled to have any boosts to my cognition I can get.  And even if I'll never be able to play "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum" like Lang Lang does, maybe the skills I learn from my piano lessons will spill over into other creative realms.  

After all, as Maya Angelou said, "You can't use up creativity.  The more you use, the more you have."


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