Popular Music brains
I can’t know what is important to you about music because music is an internal experience. And, as an internal experience – it is your very own.
Oliver Sacks, the psychologist portrayed by Robin Williams in the feature film Awakenings has written about the neurology of music. In his recent book, Musicophilia, Sacks summarizes his research into how our brains perceive music. Unlike brain models of old which theorized that music and sound perception was localized in specific portions of the mid-brain, newer research reveals that our perception of music vitalizes a huge array of brain locations. Every person’s brain pattern of interconnections is as unique as their fingerprints. It seems that so many connections are made to so many parts of the mind and body that no two people are exactly alike, though there are certainly areas shared by all. This helps to explain why every person experiences music differently and why are reached by different music. There are those who perceive music with their eyes through motion (dance), sculpture, painting, color, light and the space between objects. Poets specialize in hearing the music within speech. There is musical expression in taste and touch. There is music in the sound of wind, birds and thunder. There are those who hear music in the exhaust note of cars, too. Bluegrass, Death Metal, Big band, Zydeco, Free Jazz, Pop, Techno, GangstaRap, Stochiastic – every style has a devoted audience. Each appeals to the musical fingerprint families of their creators.
Every music style has its own mix of hierarchical elements that make it ‘true’ to its genre, and this fingerprint may not include the classical elements of melody, phrase, form, harmony, counterpoint or texture. I used to suppose that my classical and light jazz background would provide me with all that I needed in order to make a believable rendition of any style. I immediately found that I was very wrong when I entered the commercial music field and began to write ‘sound-alikes’. Sound-alikes are jobs that require the imitation of a popular hit. Though I could hear and imitate every instrument, rhythm and production technique – there was always a missing essential ingredient outside my grasp. We classical and jazz lovers tend to be more intellectual in a traditional bookish way. It might seem that these qualities would easily contain the entire spectrum of popular music styles – but they do not. My R&B and Hip-Hop tracks were missing something relaxed and connected to the street. My country songs were missing something that sounded honest. My folk and reggae tracks missed something that related to humbleness. My rock tracks missed something sexual.
My first recognition of this popular music ‘gap’ came when I worked with a death-metal band in the late 80s. These death metal guys were just as devoted to their twisted running guitar ostinatos, powerful frenetic drumming and inhuman vocal exhalations as any classical musician might be to Bach and Mahler. And though the death metal style seemed somewhat narrow in its sonic and emotional palette, these musicians understood a language that expressed visceral anger, flight, fight, despair that was beyond my complete understanding. Pitch was talked about only as complex fretboard patterns and middle, high and really high. Rhythms were sung. Pitch names were not known. Yet, these musicians mastered long complex patterns that moved at breakneck speed and yet played together with good timing accuracy. The music is felt deep in the gut and invites its listeners into a very physical ritual of anger release and ecstasy. Keep in mind that death metal/grindcore music may have nothing in common with the heavy metal bands of the 70s and 80s, that speak in a blues language. Metals are not all alike! Every style variation is unique. Rap music is a story that employs music much like a movie employs a soundtrack. Producers look for music tracks that extend, color and make whatever story is told more believable. Since samples and drum loops and grooves often provide the soundtrack to these tales, traditional musical language is not necessary. Form however, is still necessary for all pop forms (Verse, Chorus, etc)
Sachs and Howard Gardner in Intelligence Reframed, say that though our brains may have inherited a musically pre-dispositioned brain structure, most of our talent is a result of brain development in the early years of our lives. As far as being a recipient of music through genetics, I don’t know where my talents came from. There are no musicians in my family tree of whom I am aware. As to my early environment, I don’t recall more than that I loved to hear my Mom singing, and we sang as little kids (5 brothers in unison sining “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” every night with her). I do remember trying to understand why different notes felt different in different melodies when I was 7 or 8. I don’t know why certain chords and melodies caught my heart from the radio, or why some harmonies can still take my breath away. My friend Sam Rivers told me he though that while performing music is art (artifice of emotion/logic), the composition of music is science. Perhaps it was simply my love of science and the pull of my feelings that drew me to taking up a pencil to staff paper as a young teen to see if I could unravel the mystery of it all through direct engagement.