‘Classics’ and the brain

14th January 2013 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 0 comments

Yesterday I heard on the news that a Liverpool University study had shown the power of literature to boost brain activity. ‘Classic texts’ such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth appear to catch the reader’s attention more than ordinary texts, triggering heightened awareness and periods of self-reflection which last longer than the moment of reading.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the experiment in which scientists re-wrote some passages in simpler, more everyday language and got people to read both versions. Although the content was the same, it was the original version which caused more electrical activity in the reader’s brain. Unusual turns of phrase and surprising juxtapositions turned out to be memorable – and to provoke further thought.

I imagine that it is exactly the same with music. I’ve long thought that the best pieces of classical music have an extraordinary effect on the brain – an effect I’ve experienced both as a listener and as a player, though I suspect the effect is even more for a player. It’s nothing to do with the music being ‘old’, or ‘posh’, or played in historic halls, or written by composers with names approved by education advisors. It’s to do with the fact that it embraces complexity.

The same would be true of any well-written, emotionally searching piece of modern/pop music which creates long structures, or narratives whose twists and turns are only gradually revealed. But I venture that many people are more likely to find such pieces amongst the older ‘classics’ of music. Perhaps they stem from a time where people had more patience, and were more used to devoting all their attention to one thing at a time.

Shortly after hearing the news report, I happened to go to a string quartet concert. The music, by Beethoven and Brahms, was a perfect illustration of what the study was talking about. It was pleasant to listen to at every turn, yet at the same time the listener was aware that the composer had not yet put all his cards on the table. You had to pay attention, remember, follow the journey, hear musical material spinning itself into long strands from little units woven together in all sorts of ways. The number of moods encompassed was astonishing, and they were rarely moods you could pin down with a single adjective. Often it was only at the end of a fifteen-minute piece that you felt the result of what had gone before – and it wasn’t always resolution, but often something much more subtle. It seemed the opposite of the sort of music which aims to get its foot in the door straightaway and then say the same thing over and over for a few minutes before suddenly being cut off at an arbitrary point. And indeed I found, as the day wore on, that I was reflecting on what I’d heard.

So I hope the scientists are preparing to go on and do a similar study on music.

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