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Monday, May 25, 2015

Science and Music

When I was a child, my parents and my sister argued about the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, a classic trope of generational conflict over taste. Looking back from the third phase of life that family quarrel (which never ever quite resolved itself) and the old line about not knowing art but knowing what you like (arguably first uttered in the New York Times in 1880:" I don't pretend to know much about art; but I know what pleases.") just keep bumping around in my head these days but with a slight variation...now I am thinking I may not know much about science but science sure doesn't know music...or not in any way that is 'helpful' to the human condition.

I love music, love listening to it at my desk, in the car. I listen when I am moody, mellow, anxious or serene. I listen to immerse, to distract, to concentrate and to learn. I learned about music from my parents, who had a floor cabinet stereo system and a few 78s and a lot of 33's. Some of what they liked to play, I still like to listen to: Roy Orbison, Otis Redding and Harry Belafonte. My most consistent musical favourites I acquired through personal exploration in the 1960s and 1970s: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young. When I worked at CBC radio, I was constantly learning about new musicians and new genres of music. The list of who I will and do listen to could go on and on. But I fear that some folks are intent on making music about something other than music.

The past few weeks  news feeds and newsites have been filled with stories purporting to make definitive comments on music rooted in 'science,' or, more accurately, in algorithmic analysis, lyric content analysis, suspect on-line surveys and a host of other big data analytic tools  used to make the news equivalent of click bait. The upshot of the 'news' is: Nickleback has or doesn't have 'the smartest lyrics', people stop listening to new music at age 33 (earlier if you are a parent) or don't, pop music is increasingly about advertising, that the biggest changes in music were in the 60s but in 1991...and without doubt there is more to come. Predictably, each time one of these 'studies' was released, the media both old and new when nuts.

What types of music we listen to is often portrayed as one of the key markers between generations, cultural groups, class etc. Who you like to listen to, simply reveling in the joy of performance, composition, sound, meaning and memory, has been turned into a means of division, a matter of separation rather than what it should be: a remarkable defining characteristic of what it means to be human, to be truly alive. As you can probably guess there is even a Buzzfeed quiz that bets it can guess your age by the music you listen to.

Don't get me wrong, there is much that science and music can tell us about the human condition, the idea of memory formation and even how the healthy brain works and the unhealthy one doesn't. In an earlier post, I made mention of Daniel Levitin, the neuroscience and musician who is constantly finding out new things about the brain, music and the link. And that's the science we should be paying attention to, the stuff that elevates us, that makes us think, not the stuff meant to divide and distract.

But the flood of 'news stories' did trigger one nagging thought. You do have to keep finding new music. New sounds, new ways of interpreting life are important and keep the brain working. Just don't fool yourself into thinking that the only 'new music' was music produced yesterday. I am learning more about blues musicians I had never heard of, listening to recordings and performances by people dead before I was born. New is just shorthand for new to you. In that sense new is good. P

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