Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 3

The afternoon session of The Wellcome Collection‘s Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind, entitled Music Leaves A Mark* was chaired by Simon Ings (novelist, critic & science writer: The Eye: A Natural History). With him was Dr. Alan Watson (Senior Lecturer in Anatomy at Cardiff University and author of The biology of musical performance and performance-related injury published by Scarecrow Press. As I write, Dr. Watson nears the end of a 10-week course for musicians entitled Physical Principles of Instrumental Performance. Since the event at Wellcome, I have been in touch with Dr. Watson to confirm a couple of details and I’d like to thank him here for his prompt and generous co-operation.** In the introduction to the afternoon’s events he mentioned an article published in Nature in 2002 entitled The Musician’s Brain as a Model of Neuroplasticity as being the impetus which nudged his career in the direction it has taken.

The overarching aim of the afternoon was to explore the journey*** from the first glimpse of a score to eventual performance – with particular reference to the stresses that this often lengthy journey places on the body. These stresses can be career-threatening. Evidence of stress and anxiety were to be provided by ECG and EMG traces. Can science help musicians develop more efficient technique and avoid injury? Can bio-feedback provide musicians with anything that aural and proprioceptive awareness cannot?

As a precursor to highlighting the trauma of various musical processes, the stress of unpreparedness on physiology was demonstrated using the Stroop Test, named after its creator, John Ridley Stroop. Readers familiar with Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training may already be familiar with this test in which players, faced with a list of words, whose colour contradicts the lexical content, strive to name aloud the colour in which the word is written – as opposed to reading the word. I can confirm, as an occasional Brain Training player, that this stress is not reduced any by that program’s inability to understand a Scottish accent and that, were it not for the fact that double glazing is so expensive to repair, the Nintendo DS would have been thrown through the window may times by now. The test involves conflicting processes in the brain. It seems that we process words more quickly than colours and, asked to describe the latter at maximum speed, our prompt reaction to the word slows us down by generating interference. A young flautist from the audience generously agreed to be attached to the ECG while performing the test. His woodwind experience allowed him to notice his breathing accelerated during the test – and the trace from the ECG confirmed this.

Mention of the Stroop Test provided a fitting introduction to cellist Adrian Brendel who, according to Simon Ings, had sailed through the test at amazing speed. This phenomenon came up later in questions. Alan Watson inquired whether Adrian was multilingual and, upon confirmation of this, pointed out that the multiplicity of words for any given colour might reduce the usual dominance of verbal processing over colour processing.

In tandem with Gareth Lubbe, (a participant in the morning session, The Science of Improvisation) Adrian was asked to sight-read a performance of Beethoven’s Eyeglass Duo for viola and cello. This notoriously difficult piece was written to test Beethoven’s friend and cellist Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz – Beethoven himself played the viola. Adrian and Gareth’s task was rendered more difficult by the fact that the score was not a published edition but an inaccurate freebie downloaded from the Internet. Trills, normally indicated by the abbreviation tr written beside the principal note, were written out in full, resulting in distortions of the normal space-time depiction through which we survive sight-reading ordeals. Gareth was attached to the ECG/EMG and, during the most fraught moment, his presumably healthy heart-rate peaked at 141 – fortunately not for long! Adrian confessed that he had played the piece some years before but highlighted that the piece is so fiendish that even after assiduous practice it would remain a technical challenge. Suffice to say that both players gave a good account of themselves. It was interesting to see the heart rate lower as the end or the ordeal came in sight. Many might have imagined that recovery would only begin when the process had ceased. This facility, for me, marks out the seasoned practitioner from the novice – the fact that recovery can take place during performance – when you need it most. Anyone can relax when an ordeal is over – doing so while still under pressure is a skill – but an essential one.

Adrian then took over as a soloist in an endeavour to demonstrate the difference between public sight-reading and performance of a prepared piece – in this case the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G BWV 1007. In tune with the improvisatory theme of the day Adrian played two contrasting versions – one at approximately 69 beats-per-minute (in this particular piece that amounts to 276 semiquavers-per-minute) and the other at 88 beats-per-minute (352 semiquavers-per-minute). The difference in character of these two renditions of identical material was striking! I have played a guitar transcription of this piece for many years and had hoped to ask Adrian whether he experiences something which often happens to me during high-speed, improvisatory or even distracted performances – that the ear takes over and one finds oneself re-fingering passages and even relocating some of the note onto different strings. These two phenomena often happen as a result of somehow feeling driven to slide up a string to a note as opposed to crossing onto the adjacent string, causing the usual location of the subsequent notes to be unreachable in the time available. This can feel like the musical equivalent of awakening to discover that you have sleep-walked into someone else’s room. As some of the afternoon’s repertoire and discussion concerned scordatura (the retuning of one or more strings) I was also reminded of how, years ago, I became fond of a slightly bizarre method of escaping set patterns and stumbling upon new melodic ideas and harmonies. I would retune the guitar e.g. from the standard EADGBE to DADGAD and then improvise while watching TV – and, occasionally, listening to the radio simultaneously. From time to time the combination of unfamiliar fretboard layout and kaleidoscopic reportage of world events would throw up something I would never have found by searching. I’m sure John Cage would have approved. But, I digress….

After a short interval, during which time Adrian was wired up to the ECG/EMG machine, he replayed the Bach Prelude in order to demonstrate the difference between public sight-reading and performance of a practised classic. The peaks on the traces bore resemblance to the written score, portraying the energy input required to play more than any psychological stress caused by unfamiliarity-based anxiety. The Prelude was used one last time when Adrian was asked to demonstrate a technical glitch of some kind. He chose to demonstrate the difference in sound by playing the same few bars with a tense bow-arm and then a relaxed one. When relaxed, the arm produced a breadth of sound which dwarfed that of the tense arm. This is a notion with which some of my own guitar pupils struggle. Tension if often mistaken for strength and much of the energy which could be transmitted to the string remains trapped in the arm and hand, resulting in loss of projection.

In an attempt to see if contrasting repertoire might throw up different stresses and athletic demands on the performer, Adrian then performed a recent piece (I don’t believe it was named) by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. One feature which may have surprised some listeners was that the quiet opening passage of harmonics was more energy consuming than later, more obviously dynamic passages. One reason is that some of the harmonics occupy a very narrow area of the string and the slightest movement could result in an unwanted change of pitch. Moreover, the bow-arm is required to maintain a certain tension in order not to sink too deeply into the string, losing the cold, other-worldly effect that the composer appeared to be seeking. At this point, Simon Ings pointed out that increased awareness of the physical toll exacted by a variety of pieces – often at odds to what might be imagined – could have implications for programming.

One thing I wish I’d had the presence of mind to bring up was that, for many professional musicians, the mark most noticeably left upon them is hearing loss. One thinks automatically here of rock bands but there are dangers for members of symphony orchestras and pipe bands. This issue has come to light in the relatively recent past as a result of EU industrial legislation.

In conclusion – what did I get out of the day? In terms of general enjoyment, I can honestly say that my attention did not wander and I had the impression that this was true for pretty much everybody. Everyone looked like they were glad to be there. It was fascinating to explore what is actually going on in improvisation – in its widest sense – and, given the evidence for the benefits on cognition more generally I would say it’s something I am determined to explore further. I have begun to introduce an element of it into lessons and many pupils – particularly those who are at the very beginning of their instrumental life – appear to enjoy it. I was also very interested to learn more about the processes and stresses involved in learning music and look forward to the publication of Alan Watson’s book. If his eloquent explanations and answers to audience questions are anything to go by, it promises to be an accessible and illuminating read. As the science of music making unfolds is there likely to be increased interaction pairing up music students with scientists able to operate and decode the findings of ECG/EMG machinery?

From a musical point of view I was left with a question following a Adrian’s description of Debussy’s precisely marked Cello Sonata (which he had played in Germany the previous evening) as sounding as though improvised. If one had sufficient experience and understanding of improvisation, would it be possible to compose music which sounded improvised and to improvise music which sounded composed? And to explain how it was done?

I understand there are plans to upload video footage of the day’s events on the The Wellcome Collection‘s site and would recommend anyone interested to look out for them. I also gather that there is to be further developments in this field and Professor Marina Wallace of artakt has promised to keep me posted. Watch this space…


*In his book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks describes how it is possible to identify the brains of musician laid out on a table alongside those from other professions. One of the reasons for this is that active involvement in music making requires many areas in both hemispheres to work in concert. This results in a visible thickening of the corpus callosum, which connects the hemispheres by means of 200–250 million axonal fibres.

** Dr. Watson also referred me to the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine and I have created links to their commendable resources on this blog – particularly one on the ergonomics of guitar playing. I’m embarrassed to admit that, hurtling towards the age of 49, with nearly 38 years of guitar playing and 26 years of teaching behind me – not to mention decades long membership of the MU and EIS – I finally come across BAPAM as a by-product of a chance conversation.

*** This musical journey was described in terms of converting reading into muscle memory and eventually performing that muscle memory. Without wishing to question the experts I have to confess that this description is slightly at odds with my own experience. My personal experience is that a piece only seems memorised when I feel I could write it out away from the instrument. To this end, I relieve the monotony of daily swimming by reciting note names, harmonic progressions, fingerings etc. However, in performance I feel that I am following the sound – aided by muscle memory – as opposed to playing muscle memory – supported by audio feedback. However, I am prepared to stand corrected and would be delighted to take part in any relevant research. Is it possible to play guitar lying down inside an fMRI scanner?

2 thoughts on “Tune-In: Music with the Brain in Mind – 3”

  1. My first thought on reading about guitar-playing inside an MRI scanner is that it’s a natural for YouTube. What does that say about what’s been happening to my brain over the past few years?

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