Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Uncertain Health in an Insecure World – 92


Life offers up subtle themes and catch phrases that connect deeply to the human mind. When music powerfully evokes a particular person or place, like the animal characters in Peter and The Wolf (Sergei Prokofiev, 1936), it’s called leitmotif.

Leonard Cohen wrote of such evocation in his folk gospel anthem, Hallelujah:
“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord,
That David played, and it pleased the Lord… 
Well, it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall, and the major lift,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…”

Such soulful notes resonate to the very core of our beings.

Bono has called Hallelujah, “the most perfect song in the world.” But it didn’t become popular until decades after it was written in 1984. The head of CBS Records called it “a disaster.” The Rolling Stone review of the album, Various Positions, did not even mention the song. Velvet Underground’s John Cale covered it beautifully in his 1991 Cohen tribute album, and Jeff Buckley breathed life into it in 1994 three years before his death. But there was only a ripple of interest. It was only when Rufus Wainwright resurfaced it in the 2001 Shrek movie soundtrack that public awareness grew. 

Is there magic to making musical hits?

University of California at Berkeley engineers studied the structure of 1,300 songs to determine what makes popular music move the human brain. Their ‘hook theory’ posits that certain chord progressions are more pleasing to the ear. Many pop songs are written in the easy to play keys of C or G – they are full of those common chords – so no surprise there. Songs in the key of C (and its relative minor, A) are by far the most frequent. F and G chord progressions are also very common (above), lending to the common criticism of formulaic “four chord pop songs” featuring C, A minor, F and G chords. Songs written in C major (or I) are best wrapped up with G major (or V) chords. That’s why the G to C (or the V to I) chord resolution is so common in popular music.

However, as pointed out by lead hook theorist, Dave Carlton (below left), some of the greatest pop songs eschew this convention, using the F chord (IV) before the C major (a IV to I chord progression) to great effect: Let It Be (The Beatles, 1970, above), Don’t Stop Believing (Journey, 1981), She Will be Loved (Maroon 5, 2002), I Need You Now (Lady Antebellum, 2009) and Edge of Glory (Lady Gaga, 2011).

Carlton notes that classical musicians use different chord progressions when composing. And even pop song writers with classical training – like John Mayer (1998 Berklee School of Music graduate) in Who Says (2009) – approach the composing craft differently. Philadelphia public radio WHYY Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane explored the musical success formulas behind the classic pop songs of summer. In July 2014, she interviewed Ryan Mikayawa, another UC Berkeley hook theorist (above right). Mikayawa noted that the unique chord progressions in John Legend’s All of Me (2014), while reminiscent of some prior hits, were neither plagiarized nor formulaic.

What does music do to the human brain? Well, if you’re a pop music megastar, different things.

When visiting Montreal in July 2007 for The Police’s reunion tour concert, Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner (a.k.a. Sting, above) agreed to undergo a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute. The lead MNI psychologist, Dr. Daniel Levitin, asked him to listen to music during the fMRI, which showed that “pieces of music that you or I wouldn’t have seen as similar, his brain saw as similar.

Sting’s brain triggered similar patterns (below) when listening to his Englishman in New York, and to The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – both songs start with a low E on the bass. Again, when Sting listened to the Beatles 1960’s hit Girl and Astor Piazzolla’s composition Libertango – both in minor keys with an identical 3-note motif – his cerebellar fMRI activity was comparable.

Remarkably, normal non-musician volunteers’ brains did not make these subtle connections.

Can restoring normal brainwaves help to treat brain injury and disease?

A line of research led by University of Toronto neuroscientist Dr. Luis Fornazzari has shown that artists and musicians suffering from multi-stroke vascular dementia can still express art from memory, even when they fail completely at simple daily tasks and recent event recall.  “Due to their art, the brain is better protected [against] diseases like Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia and even stroke.” Fornazzari believes that, “… the talent and the art per se gives [them] reserve when the brain requires that reserve.” One of his severely affected dementia patients, Mary Hecht, was a sculptor. Mary quickly sketched a portrait of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (below) when she heard of his 2007 death over the radio. While drawing, her thoughts were clear and her words articulate – otherwise, she couldn’t tell time, remember simple words or identify certain common animals.

So there is neuroscience to music.

In artists, it connects brain patterns and reconnects lost memories.

And exposure to music does rewire neural circuits.

In children, it helps with focus, memory and attention skills.

There is a secret chord.

“But you really don’t care for music, do you?”

Although baffling to some, we in the Square still listen, in search of the divine.  

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