Online discussion #1 is open for comments January 29-February 4. Make sure that you email your WordPress user name to email@example.com so that I can give you credit for participating. An overview of these assignments and how you’ll be graded is available here: Online participation overview – Spring 2018.
Welcome to Mu 101!
This semester, we’re going to be using this online forum to have deeper, ongoing conversations and dig into material we might not cover in class. The world of music—all the ideas, people, and ways of thinking that music opens up—is huge. There’s no way that we could possibly cover it all, but hopefully these online discussions will help enlarge your sense of just how big and fascinating the world is!
A very good place to start
We’re starting by thinking about thinking—how does music affect how people think?
Every activity, experience, and piece of information you come across in your life changes your brain. The brain is a system of neurons and synapses that constantly rewires itself to adapt to your life. The more often you do something (like recall a piece of information or perform an activity), the better your brain gets at accessing and doing it. This is why studying a little bit every day is effective: you’re reinforcing your brain’s ability to recall or associate bits of information. And, this is also why habits can be hard to break—you train your brain to do something by doing it over and over—and unlearning a habit requires both making totally new connections between different parts of your brain and also forgetting old ones.
There are a couple of good books on this subject if you want to keep reading:
- Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind (1992) and Neural Darwinism (1987), which describe his theory of “neural Darwinism,” or the strengthening of different neural pathways in the brain over others through use and disuse
- Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999), which describes his theory of “core consciousness” and people’s (including musicians) ability to consciously enter special mental states by training their brains to do so
- Judith Becker, Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing (2004), which applies Damasio’s and Edelman’s research to people who actively and deeply listen to music and tap into their core consciousness, leaving their personalities behind (there’s also the text of a lecture she gave on this subject available here)
So, what does this have to do with music?
Making music changes your brain in ways that other activities don’t. Learning to play a musical instrument can be a great benefit to the brain: its development, improved long-term memory, language skills, faster reaction times. A lot of research in this field specifically studies the effect of musical study on young children (and here and here), but the effects are true at all stages of life—it’s never too late!
Below is a short (5′) TedTalk that scratches the surface of this idea by showing the many mental processes and parts of the brain that are engaged when someone plays a musical instrument.
Listening—the task of Mu 101
Special things happen to our brains—and our bodies!—when we listen to music, too.
“Physiology” (pronounced fizzy-all-oh-gee) is the study of how our bodies normally function: how our cells, biochemicals, and bodily systems all work together, react to the world around us, and keep us alive.
Physiology comes into play with music when we start thinking about how our bodies react to music: things happen when we like the sounds we’re hearing (our eyes dilate, our pulse changes, our body releases dopamine)—we have a physiological reaction to the music that’s involuntary, exciting, sometimes unexpected, and often enjoyable. Our bodies’ reactions help us understand if we want to hear something again (even if we don’t directly say to ourselves, “Wow, my cerebellum became quite active during that song; I’d better listen to it again!”) because we enjoy the way they feel, and we know that listening to music might be one of the only ways to feel those particular (enjoyable) feelings again.
Below is a link to a short (19′) video presentation given by musician/researcher Deanna Choi at TEDxQueensU in 2012 (Canada) that explains what happens to our bodies when we listen to music. You might be a person that learns more easily from reading than listening, or if you may be interested in reading another short, accessible introduction to the study of music and physiology, so I’m including a link to one here. There are hundreds of similar articles out there—this has been a popular topic of research for the last several decades.
Engaging with the materials of this class (and every class you take!) will change who you are—by changing how you think and listen, reinforcing new neural pathways in your brain, and helping you acquire new skills that will give you something to build upon, a bundle of neurons ready to link to whatever skills and information you encounter in the future. What a way to start the semester!
Some questions to get the conversation started:
- What’s an activity that you can do easily, without having to consciously think about it, and how much practice did it take for you to able to do it easily? What can you infer about people who seem to make music effortlessly?
- What are some physiological reactions you’ve experienced while listening to music?
- If physiological reactions are involuntary, why don’t we all enjoy the same music to the same degree?