Mirror neurons are key to reaching a new classical music audience

In September 2019 a preeminent classical music website acclaimed John Luther Adams' Become Ocean as the most important post-2000 composition. That accolade was justified because, to quote the website's author, "Adams’s piece is the most important orchestral work to address the crisis of life on earth. It will be performed so long as life remains on earth". More recently another preeminent classical website dismissed Become Ocean and the two other works in JLA's Become cycle,  with the website's author explaining: "You will either feel very, very relaxed by the middle of the piece or, like me, you will throw things at the wall and say some very bad words... There is not much to distinguish between these three pieces on first listening and I don’t think I could survive a second".

Which is fair enough: because everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Except for one thing: both appraisals of Become Ocean were authored by the same self-proclaimed cultural commentator, Norman Lebrecht. Now the point of this post is not to point out the blindingly obvious, that Norman will write anything if it makes his Google Analytics look good. The point is to propose that the doctrine of 'If I don't get it, I'll diss it' school of click bait music criticism - Lebrecht, Bratby etc- is unhelpful if classical music wants to reach a wider audience.

An appreciation in Edge Effects, a digital magazine devoted to environmental issues, explains how:
Become Ocean is like other pieces of modern and contemporary classical music in that it embraces the abstraction of sound. ...Rather than use melodies... Become Ocean is shaped by waves of sound from different instruments at various volumes. This ambient music makes full use of the emotional power of sound.
It is the abstract, ambient and repetitive nature of Become Ocean that explains its popularity and success - as well as winning a Pullitzer Prize it won the 2014 Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. With its preference for abstraction over melody Become Ocean defied the historic dogmas of classical composition. Because of this John Luther Adams' masterpiece engages an audience that does not base its musical judgements on classical dogma.

For years the classical music industry has been obsessed with reaching a new and wider audience. Yet the very same industry continues to base its growth strategies on classical dogmas constructed centuries ago. When Become Ocean won the 2014 Pullitzer Prize for Music the award citation described it as "a haunting orchestral work". An online definition of 'haunting' is 'remaining in the consciousness; not quickly forgotten'. Identifying why some music engages the consciousness is the key to classical music reaching a wider audience. It is my proposition that mirror neurons are one of the keys to understanding this engagement process. Mirror neurons are a class of neurons that discharge both when an individual performs an action and when that individual observes another person performing the same or similar action. Research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the States reports how the brain's mirror neurons play a key role in musical engagement:
The ability to create and enjoy music is a universal human trait and plays an important role in the daily life of most cultures. Music has a unique ability to trigger memories, awaken emotions and to intensify our social experiences. We do not need to be trained in music performance or appreciation to be able to reap its benefits—already as infants, we relate to it spontaneously and effortlessly. There has been a recent surge in neuroimaging investigations of the neural basis of musical experience, but the way in which the abstract shapes and patterns of musical sound can have such profound meaning to us remains elusive. Here we review recent neuroimaging evidence and suggest that music, like language, involves an intimate coupling between the perception and production of hierarchically organized sequential information, the structure of which has the ability to communicate meaning and emotion. We propose that these aspects of musical experience may be mediated by the human mirror neuron system.
Become Ocean's ambient abstractions triggered the mirror neurons in a wide audience attuned to musical structures beyond classical dogma. Just as for me back in the early 1970s the visceral power of Mahler's music triggered mirror neurons conditioned by prog rock back. The supposed wisdom of social media crowds - the 'hive mind' - is simply mirror neurons firing en masse. Closer to home the music therapy movement recognises the beneficial effect of music's engagement with the human mirror neuron system. So why is the classical music industry so impressed by Google Analytics and so uninterested in mirror neurons and the mechanisms of musical engagement?

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Aldeva said…
'The Master and His Emissary" by Iaian McGilchrist has a lot to say regarding music and the brain
Pliable said…
Thanks Aldeva. It is a total mystery to me why there is so little interest in the mechanism of musical engagement. I have tried several times over the years via the blog to raise the profile of this important topic, but with little success. This is a post from some years back on the subject - https://www.overgrownpath.com/2013/06/we-become-what-we-listen-to-should-be.html
For me, mirror neurons explain a lot about how music engages us because some of what it does is encode physical gestures (which trigger mirror neurons) in sound. A pianist caressing the keys triggers the feeling of caressing in us, even when we simply hear it without seeing it. Grandiose march tunes give us the feeling of walking that way. Like you, I'm baffled there seems to be no interest in gaining a deeper understanding of how, when and why that works.
Pliable said…
Lyle, following an Overgrown Path that I know is dear to both of us leads to a brief but pertinent explanation of the metaphysical role of mirror neurons. In his book Buddha's Map the psychotherapist and meditation teacher Doug Kraft describes the link between mirror neurons and empathy: "When we see someone else frown, our mirror neurons can trigger a similar pattern - our neural physiology mirrors inside us what we see in another... We can literally feel inside what we see in another".
Owls_to_Athens said…
In my opinion, Become Ocean is accessible precisely because it holds fast to something which underlies music, and the question of classical dogma is irrelevant to this.
As well, I see that it is not only the emotional power of sound which is relevant here.

The internal structures of Become Ocean operates to present us with a precise and orchestrated systematic process, just as
waves breaking on the shoreline do, albeit in a slightly different way. Let me try and present my reasoning.

1) First, the orchestra is divided into three subsections; roughly, strings, woodwinds and brass. Each of these groups plays a
repeating sequence both of sustained arpeggios and long held notes which in turn produce additional sonorities (sum and
difference tones).
2) Each group's sequence is of a different length. This structure sets up a system of harmonies which constantly interact
differently due to the different lengths, although I do recall there being three points where the systems interact and build
to a climax followed by the sequence of interactions mirrored in reverse around the middle climax of the piece.
3)Segment A was about 7 minutes in the performance I saw a week or two ago. Segment B was about 14 minutes, followed
by a palindromic musical reversal at the end of Segment B: Segment B' is played in an exact time and as a reversed mirror
of segment B. The same takes place for segment A' at the end of the piece.
4)The sequences from each of the orchestral subsections are designed to fit the timing, and harmonic structures created by
the overlays.
I suspect one doesn't have to be a musician for our mirror neurons to be triggered into recognising these patterns and responding to the processes taking place in the music. We might not even be aware of it. I'm not sure I necessarily and
consciously identified this structure and process while listening, despite strong my emotional response to this piece.
The second important "note" (pardon the pun) concerns the way in which the harmonies of the three sets of sustained tones
and arpeggios have been selected to work together to provide the sense of organic growth and overlap. I recall no dissonances
or other "spell-breaking" musical events to interfere with the sense of being one with the world of the music, unsurprisingly, not
entirely dissimilar to the sense of waves on the shore!
I see a lot of skilled compositional attention to the integration of a combination of repeating musical themes over a sustained
duration and in developing a structure such as this in the first place. It might even be going to far to draw attention to the
classical construction of an exposition followed by a shift toward rising action, leading to a climax, and subsequent falling action, followed by a resolution.
More food for the mirror neurons who are doubtless tuned in to such structures. Needless to say, I don't see this as being simply
"ambient" music in any real sense of tone and atmosphere as opposed to formal structure - there is a lot to this piece that requires the composer to exercise formal and traditional musicianship, and demand it from players. I do agree though that our mirror neurons are probably always listening even if we aren't consciously aware of it.

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