Music-Making and Neuroscience

Organ with six keyboards and many switches
The U.S. Air Force found that pianists—who simultaneously command ten fingers and two feet, read notes, interpret, and collaborate with colleagues—would make good drone pilots. I’d also add organists (whose performing stations can resemble cockpits!) to the group. Photo of organist Albert Schönberger (public domain)

Pianists: Air-Force-Certified Masters of Complex Tasks

Several years ago I had the privilege of listening to a talk by Lex Braun, Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, at an annual Advisory Board meeting of the Texas Medical Center in Houston’s National Center for Human Performance. The Pentagon, Mr. Braun told us, was concerned that the drones we were using in the Middle East crashed much too often, not only causing all sorts of unintended collateral damage, including innocent human lives, but at a cost of $10 million a crash.

In all such instances, two Air Force officers, on board a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, were working together to operate a single drone by remote control. One of them was charged with synthesizing two dozen incoming visual signals relevant to the drone’s performance: changing air speed over time, altitude, relationship to the intended target, and incoming enemy missiles, among many others. A colleague was tasked with synthesizing two dozen incoming audio signals stemming from 24 other variables. The two officers were supposed, between the two of them, to work out meaningful courses of action, under pressure and in very limited amounts of time, but the drones continued to miss their intended targets.

Puzzled, the Pentagon had invested, we were told, large amounts of money in an effort to determine which kinds of young Americans might best be able effectively to synthesize large amounts of incoming data while under pressure. And the answer turned out to be … pianists!

A pianist myself, I was not surprised to learn of this conclusion, though I supposed that the Pentagon seemed to have missed organists in their net. In what follows I shall try briefly to outline the process I believe should take place when any young musician learns a new work.

A Performer’s First Task: Understanding the Composer’s Intent and When to Take Liberties

In tackling a new work, to begin with, one should try to find an edition of the music that stems from the work of reliable musicologists to assemble a publication that comes as close as possible to a printed realization of the composer’s intention. This, however, is not always as easy as it might seem.

Years ago, as a Princeton graduate student in musicology, I was given the privilege by Arthur Mendel of editing for the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, Bach Cantata 176, “Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding”. The alto aria of the cantata, sung no doubt in 1725 by one of Bach’s Thomasschule students, begins “Ermuntert euch, furchtsam und schüchterne Sinne” and has an obbligato part for two oboes and oboe da caccia playing in unison. Not surprisingly, the extant original performing parts, then the property of C.F. Peters in New York City, show that when the aria was rehearsed, Bach found that three unison oboes, played at least in part by other Thomasschule students, were too much oboe for the contralto soloist, and asked oboes 1 and 2 to mark their parts “tacit” during the measures when the young alto was singing. Under pressure during what was probably a Saturday rehearsal for a performance the following day, oboes 1 and 2 put the tacit marks in the wrong measures, thus resulting at Sunday’s performance in what Bach must have found at least mildly disconcerting. (All this is, appropriately, indicated in my Kritischer Bericht, which I don’t imagine many Bach performers have ever read.)

That leaves open what has always seemed to me the central question of this aria: though Marianne von Ziegler’s text refers to the Trinity, I still cannot fathom why so skilled a composer as Bach would ever have dreamed that the trio made up of two unison oboes and oboe da caccia was an appropriate allusion to the text, even before listening to the necessarily hurried rehearsal of his tyro oboe players. Put another way, even with the most presumably reliable notation records, a conscientious young musician can not be anything like certain that (s)he is achieving the composer’s intention. The instrument on which (s)he is playing, the acoustics of the hall in which the performance takes place, the ears of the audience (who have heard more music from the past two centuries than Bach had ever dreamed of), and the accuracy of the score will all impact the possibility of realizing Bach’s intention.

In this performance of the aria, conducted by Helmut Rilling, only a single oboe is used.
In Gustav Leonhardt’s version, we hear 2 oboes and oboe da caccia, another viable interpretation, though more hollow-sounding.

Further, there has been a marked change in philosophical outlook on such matters, even during so brief a timespan as my life. In the days when I studied piano during the summer of 1956 at Marlboro, Rudolf Serkin preached a doctrine that demanded infinite practice time, accompanied by inevitable blood, sweat and tears. In present times, pianist-teachers like Gilbert Kalish, about whom I am just finishing a book, are convinced that, while altering notes and dynamics is not allowed, a student should be encouraged to imagine musical tasks as the development of a way of looking at the piece which will allow the possibility of several different equally appropriate approaches, each with its own defensible musical rationale.

Multitasking to Realize the Composer and Player’s Intentions in Performance

After one has made something of the score at hand, a superb performance depends on the ability of the musician to listen carefully while practicing and performing. This may involve looking at the music and, while practicing, experimenting with such matters as phrasing, tone color, counterpoint, and the connection of the notes to one another. In performing, especially as a soloist with orchestra or in a chamber music concert with other musicians, (s)he is obliged to listen to and to watch what other colleagues are doing, reacting instantaneously to the possibility of errors by the other players or by the conductor, all while avoiding the terrible but not inevitable distraction of nervousness.

Given the myriad neurotransmissions involved with successfully performing a work of music, it’s no wonder James Catterall’s recent book, Doing Well by Doing Good by Doing Art, shows a strong correlation between music study among the young to academic achievement in grades 7-12, the staying power of graduating from high school, of going to college, and of securing gainful employment afterwards, no matter what the family’s socio-economic status when our young person was a child.

My Own Attempts to Cross Worlds between Music and Neuroscience, and the Outlook Today

In 1985, while Eastman School director, my good friend James Winn and I played, after dinner, the Piston Sonata for Flute and Piano, then discussed for the members of the University of Rochester’s neuroscience department what each of us thought he was thinking about while performing. In the presence of the University’s president, who had generously hosted the dinner, I had asked about the possibility of closer collaboration between neuroscience and Eastman, only to be told that I sounded like Buck Rogers, lost in the 25th century.

Something similar took place towards the end of the century, when as New England Conservatory president, I proposed a closer relationship between NEC and the Harvard Medical School-Mass general physicians, only to be met with the same kind of resistance.

But during the 1990s Magnetic Resonance Imaging (commonly known as MRI) came into its own and collaborative programs of the kind I imagined 35 years ago are now coming into being at Houston, Rochester, and UCLA.

Nonetheless, everything just outlined suggests how little we still know about the neurology involved with musical expression. To complicate matters further, the art of performing music for an audience that understands what we are trying to accomplish implies another entire set of brains, with their own neurological processes, on the receiving end. It is my firm conviction that improving our understanding of both sides of this equation can only result in enormous breakthroughs for the art of music not yet dreamed of.

What are your experiences with the mental tasks of music-making? Would you make a good Air Force drone pilot?! Please, share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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