Sunday, January 23, 2011

Music & Tickling

I've often used the phrase, "music tickles the brain", as a way of talking about how music can affect us. It turns out there is something of a similarity between the two. Back in this post on the new work coming out of McGill up in Canada, there were these two quotes:

. . . it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.). . .

. . .  The uncertainty makes the feeling – it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next. . . .

In this article about why we can't tickle ourselves, there's this:

So why is it that we laugh when we’re tickled? Simply put, because of the unexpectedness of it. The cerebellum, the part of our brain that monitors our movements, can detect the difference between expected sensations (scratching an itch, for instance) and unexpected sensations (a bug landing on your ear). Because of this difference, we can’t predict where someone will tickle us or how we will feel when they do, so it makes us panic. That panic is manifested through uncontrollable laughter — sort of a more acceptable “nervous laugh,” if you will.

So the effects of both music and tickling rely on our being uncertain as to what's coming next. The results are different, though. In one case dopamine is released and in the other it sounds more like adrenalin is the active agent.

At any rate, it seems to me this is part of the puzzle of how musicians sometimes don't feel the music they're making the same way an audience might, especially a new and unfamiliar piece. The musicians know where the music is going, but the audience doesn't. And that thought reminded me of this quote Terry Teachout put up on his blog a couple of years ago.

"I very much disapprove of the adage that you have to feel the performance completely every night on the stage. This is technically an impossibility, and really is the negation of the art of acting. The art of acting, after all, is not actual feeling but simulation of feeling, and it is impossible to feel a strong emotional part eight performances a week, including two matinées."
Noël Coward, "The Art of Acting" (The Listener, Oct. 12, 1961)

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