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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