First, thanks to Lyle Sanford, who blogged about this topic over on his Music Therapy blog and called my attention to an article on Discover Magazine called Your Brain Knows A Lot More Than It Realizes. In this article, neuroscientist David Eagleman notes how much of what we do in life is something that we can perform easily, but are unable to consciously access. Eagleman writes:
The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory—meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, typing on a keyboard, and steering your car into a parking space while speaking on your cell phone are examples of this. You execute these actions easily but without knowing the details of how you do it. You would be totally unable to describe the perfectly timed choreography with which your muscles contract and relax as you navigate around other people in a cafeteria while holding a tray, yet you have no trouble doing it. This is the gap between what your brain can do and what you can tap into consciously.
Lyle notes in his blog post how much the examples in Eagleman’s article can relate to performing music and music therapy. This got me thinking about how much of what I teach in a variety of music classes (ranging from private lessons to music theory, history, composition, and survey courses for non-musicians) is similar in this respect. For example, Eagleman’s article points out how dividing baby chicks into genders and spotting and identifying incoming planes in Word War II era England were feats that required a master/apprentice relationship where the student couldn’t receive instructions, but instead needed to get feedback from their mentors.
During World War II, under constant threat of bombings, the British had a great need to distinguish incoming aircraft quickly and accurately. Which aircraft were British planes coming home and which were German planes coming to bomb? Several airplane enthusiasts had proved to be excellent “spotters,” so the military eagerly employed their services. These spotters were so valuable that the government quickly tried to enlist more spotters—but they turned out to be rare and difficult to find. The government therefore tasked the spotters with training others.
It was a grim attempt. The spotters tried to explain their strategies but failed. No one got it, not even the spotters themselves. Like the chicken sexers, the spotters had little idea how they did what they did—they simply saw the right answer.
With a little ingenuity, the British finally figured out how to successfully train new spotters: by trial-and-error feedback. A novice would hazard a guess and an expert would say yes or no. Eventually the novices became, like their mentors, vessels of the mysterious, ineffable expertise.
How does this relate to music? One example that leaps to mind is trying to teach non-musicians to be able to identify different instruments and different performers by sound alone. It’s challenging for a student who hasn’t had a background of playing in a band or orchestra to be able to pick up on the subtle aural clues that distinguish a clarinet from a french horn, let alone an alto saxophone from a tenor saxophone or, even more challenging, Miles Davis from Chet Baker. One of the reasons why I find this hard to teach is because words fail to convey these nuances.
I think it was Laurie Anderson who said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If a musician could have said what he or she wanted to say in words, the artist would have done it that way. I can offer suggestions for things to listen for (pitch range, certain instrument specific sounds, etc.), but it’s simply impossible to describe the timbre of an Elbonian nose kazoo to someone who has never heard this made up instrument before. The closest thing you can do is relate the sound to something else the student is already familiar with and then offer feedback.
Other topics are comparable. With ear training you cannot explain what an authentic cadence or minor 7th interval sounds like in such a way that someone will recognize it if they hear it, you have to expose the student to those sounds and then offer them feedback on whether or not they are correct when they try to discern it themselves. With regards to the complex motor control we develop to play a musical instrument, Eagleman’s article also offers some other examples.
On August 20, 1974, in a game between the California Angels and the Detroit Tigers, The Guinness Book of Records clocked Nolan Ryan’s fastball at 100.9 miles per hour. If you work the numbers, you’ll see that Ryan’s pitch departs the mound and crosses home plate—60 feet, 6 inches away—in four-tenths of a second. This gives just enough time for light signals from the baseball to hit the batter’s eye, work through the circuitry of the retina, activate successions of cells along the loopy superhighways of the visual system at the back of the head, cross vast territories to the motor areas, and modify the contraction of the muscles swinging the bat. Amazingly, this entire sequence is possible in less than four-tenths of a second; otherwise no one would ever hit a fastball. But even more surprising is that conscious awareness takes longer than that: about half a second. So the ball travels too rapidly for batters to be consciously aware of it.
One does not need to be consciously aware to perform sophisticated motor acts. You can notice this when you begin to duck from a snapping tree branch before you are aware that it’s coming toward you, or when you’re already jumping up when you first become aware of a phone’s ring.
If we were to consider all the myriad things we must coordinate to play a single pitch on a brass instrument (setting the embouchure, the position of the tongue to start the note and where it goes while sustaining, taking in air, blowing at just the right pressure and quantity, the proper fingering, correct posture, etc.) there is simply too much to be aware of at once. Good teachers are able to break down each individual detail when necessary, but also know when to stay out of a student’s way and let the details work themselves out.
All this really underscores the value of concerted and focused listening practice at all levels and for all purposes, whether it’s career-minded students or students taking a one semester survey course. There is simply no way to “dance about architecture” without experiencing music aurally.