Friday, January 11, 2013

Music of the Hemispheres

This is interesting, and it sounds intuitively true: "The approach to music," writes McGilchrist, "is like entering into relation with another living individual."

Turns out that music is alive, or at least might as well be, as far as the right cerebral hemisphere is concerned. For "research suggests that understanding music is perceived as similar to knowing a person" (ibid).

And in fact, more generally, "works of art -- music, poems, paintings, great buildings -- can be understood only if we appreciate that they are more like people than texts, concepts or things" (ibid).

Then again, not all music is alive, is it? There are clearly "degrees" of musical life, although such a concept literally makes no sense to the left brain.

Furthermore, we can't just take refuge in some easily understood concept such as "complexity," because there are very simple forms of music that endure, and extremely complex ones that don't (cf. the pointless virtuosity of most "progressive" rock vs. the seemingly simple music of a classic bluesman such as Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters).

Music is direct person-to-person communication; one might say that the person is somehow embodied in the music.

I just read a biography of Sinatra, and it occurs to me that this was precisely the source of the overwhelming effect he had on (especially) female fans in the early 1940s. That is, it seems that he was the first popular vocalist to use the new technology to forge a deeper intimacy with listeners.

Prior to the perfection of microphone technology, singers relied on megaphones to reach the audience. Singing was a "declamatory art." In order to be heard, they had to project their voices over the band and to the back of the hall, resulting in a formal and stilted manner. There was almost no such thing as "phrasing."

The bottom line is, you can't whisper sweet nothings to a girl through a megaphone. There were plenty of fine voices out there, but Sinatra realized that the microphone "was his instrument, as surely as the pianist's piano or a saxophonist's sax."

Sinatra even preferred a black microphone, as it would disappear into his tux and "give the illusion that his hand was empty, that he was connecting directly with the audience."

I am also reminded of something Paul McCartney said about the early Beatles songs. They were consciously written in the first person, so as to sound as if they were singing directly to the girl: I Want to Hold Your Hand, Love Me Do, Please Please Me, From Me to You, Thank You Girl, P.S. I Love You, Ask Me Why, Do You Want to Know a Secret, All My Loving, etc. It was a big departure when they finally decided to write one in the third person, She Loves You.

An editorial in the February 2013 Stereophile goes to the musical differences between left and right brains. The author writes of auditioning a new piece of equipment with a group of listeners. Some of them heard only "quantitative" differences, such as more bass. But the author writes that he heard things differently -- that "it let me hear music more organically, in ways that touched me deeper."

There it is again: a living person behind or within the music.

The problem is, if you try to listen to the differences, you end up engaging the left brain: equipment reviewers "often discuss certain musical elements to the exclusion of others," and "give short shrift to how the totality of the musical experience affects us....

"When all we talk about is the sound of specific sonic elements, rather than how the entire musical experience makes us feel, I fear we ultimately lead readers astray." We focus "on individual fragments of the sonic experience instead of receiving music as an organic whole."

Again: organic. And receiving. The soul must become actively passive, so to (not) speak, similar to religious experience.

Now that I think about it, this has clear psychopolitical implications. For example, like Sinatra, liberals have perfected the trick of using technology to speak intimately to low-information adolescent girls (of whatever age or gender).

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem. Talk radio, for example, has an overwhelmingly male demographic, and the same women who respond to the sweet nothings of the left are extremely turned off by fact and logic. I love Rush, but he does kind of sound like he's declaiming through a megaphone, doesn't he?

Maybe we just need someone with a smooth and seductive voice to convey the message, because if McGilchrist is correct, music is actually prior to speech, and what we say is easily defeated by what our listeners feel.


julie said...

The bottom line is, you can't whisper sweet nothings to a girl through a megaphone.


Rick said...

"because if McGilchrist is correct, music is actually prior to speech"

Seems to make sense then why the angels sing so much (if not always).

Light > music > speech

julie said...

...the microphone "was his instrument, as surely as the pianist's piano or a saxophonist's sax."

Heh - if memory serves, the saxophonists were always the worst ladies' men in band. Which also explains the otherwise mystifying appeal of Kenny G...

julie said...

And Bill Clinton, for that matter...

julie said...

For example, like Sinatra, liberals have perfected the trick of using technology to speak intimately to low-information adolescent girls (of whatever age or gender).

As I was saying...

Gagdad Bob said...

Tenor sax is indeed without a doubt the instrument closest to the human voice, which is why it eventually came to dominate. In its case, Coleman Hawkins was the first to turn it into a solo voice. Prior to him, it was more like a circus instrument, used for effect and color.

Gagdad Bob said...

And Bill played tenor, of course...

julie said...

Re. talk radio, that's interesting; I wouldn't have guessed, since the shows I've listened to have never suffered a lack of female callers. That I've noticed. That said, the people who appeal to me most tend to be the least combative. Prager is assertive, but he always comes across as being confident as opposed to blustering. Which is a rare trait among talk radio hosts of either gender.

Gagdad Bob said...

The sax lends itself to a kind of breathy intimacy, e.g., Stan Getz. Interestingly, Miles was able to achieve that with the trumpet, which may have contributed to his crossover appeal. Instead of playing to the rafters, like an Armstrong, he had a soft and intimate style.

Gagdad Bob said...

I'm pretty sure that with political talk radio talk shows, they have a "ladies first" policy with callers, in order to try to skew more female. In contrast, a Laura Schlesinger has a big female demographic.

Gagdad Bob said...

"Compassionate conservatism" was a feeble attempt to speak right brainese to the ladies.

Rick said...

Hmmm. New-ish Roger Scruton book in the sidebar/spin cycle...

Gagdad Bob said...

Perception of the human face is a totally right-brained phenomenon. Haven't yet started the book....

Gagdad Bob said...

In other words, the left brain can't scrutonize the face....

EbonyRaptor said...

It's probably just personnal preference, but no musical instrument evokes as deep an emotional response from within me as the cello. It seems like the cello just reaches in and hits that sweet spot and matches my internal pitch. It doesn't have to be solo cello, most times it's not. I seem to be able to feel the cello where I hear the other instruments.

Rick said...


How dare you

Rick said...

Let me put it this way. If Roger Scruton played the cello and I was 20 years younger...

Gagdad Bob said...


You're quite right. Of the classical instruments, the cello is most able to mimic the human voice.

julie said...

ER, you might like The Piano Guys, who could probably have called themselves "Cello Guy Plus Some Dude on a Piano," except that makes for a clunky band name.

julie said...

Re. compassionate conservatism, what a mess that was.

One of the things that drives me nuts about the current culture is how people/ businesses who make personally reasonable and even wise decisions (top of my list being Susan G. Komen and Chik Fil A) - conservative decisions, in other words, are expected not only to step away from those decisions, but apologize and make amends. They get so much support while they stick to their guns, but I guess the pressure and howling from the left becomes too much to bear. Very few people anymore have the guts and determination to stand up for what they know is right.

mushroom said...

Rudy Vallee was the megaphone king, and he had a lot of the same reactions from females as Sinatra did with the microphone. Vallee was a weak tenor when he started out and his voice could not carry over the band without his megaphone. Maybe it's the same relative impact. Compare the retro vocalization on whatever the group was that did "Winchester Cathedral" to a crooner.

mushroom said...

Compassionate conservatism is what caused me to start calling myself libertarian all the time.

mushroom said...

I was listening to Charlie Parker a night or two ago and thinking how well I could hear the words on "K.C. Blues".

ge said...

Charley Parker, who recently died
Laughing at a juggler on the TV
after weeks of strain and sickness,
was called the Perfect Musician.
And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of the Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes,
The expression that says "All is well"
This was what Charley Parker
Said when he played, All is well.
You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
Like a hermit’s joy, or like
the perfect cry
Of some wild gang at a jam session
"Wail, Wop" Charley burst
His lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
Was his Eternal Slowdown.
A great musician and a great
creator of forms
That ultimately find expression
In mores and what have you.

Musically as important as Beethoven,
Yet not regarded as such at all,
A genteel conductor of string
In front of which he stood,
Proud and calm, like a leader
of music
In the Great Historic World Night,
And wailed his little saxophone,
The alto, with piercing clear
In perfect tune & shining harmony,
Toot as listeners reacted
Without showing it, and began talking
And everybody talking and Charley
Whistling them on to the brink of eternity
With his Irish St Patrick
patootle stick,
And like the holy piss we blop
And we plop in the waters of
And white meat, and die
One after one, in time.

And how sweet a story it is
When you hear Charley Parker
tell it,
Either on records or at sessions,
Or at official bits in clubs,
Shots in the arm for the wallet,

Gleefully he Whistled the

Anyhow, made no difference.
Charley Parker, forgive me
Forgive me for not answering your eyes
For not having made an indication
Of that which you can devise
Charley Parker, pray for me
Pray for me and everybody
In the Nirvanas of your brain
Where you hide, indulgent and huge,
No longer Charley Parker
But the secret unsayable name
That carries with it merit /
Not to be measured from here
To up, down, east, or west—
--Charley Parker, lay the bane.
off me, and every body."

EbonyRaptor said...

Thanks Julie. I just listened to them do my favorite Christmas hymn - O Come O Come Emmanuel - beautiful.

Jack said...

"... because if McGilchrist is correct, music is actually prior to speech, and what we say is easily defeated by what our listeners feel."

This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. The idea that conservatism probably needs the arts as much as or even more than it does rhetoric and logic.

I've taken the past few years off as a musician. But I am thinking of going back at it with this very goal in mind.

If it's true that you can't reason someone out of what they were never reasoned into--and I do think it's true--then it is almost a certainty that right-brain approaches will be more useful.

Then once someone is ordered rightly via right-brained means such as music etc then perhaps an education by means of logic and evidence is then possible. Probably a big waste of time before then.

Jack said...


If you read Stereophile, then you may know the company I work for: Grace Design. The m903 headphone amplifier has been reviewed well by Stereophile.

Gagdad Bob said...

Very cool. I don't remember seeing that particular brand, but then I don't pay much attention to headphone amps, since I have a pretty decent one in my Luxman integrated. I've been a Stereophile subscriber on and off for over twenty years. I don't understand much of the technical talk. Mostly I like looking at the pictures.

Gagdad Bob said...

I like the picture of the D'Agostino monoblock on the cover of the new issue. Only $110,000 a pair!

Gagdad Bob said...

One reason why I purchased the Luxman is that I really like its retro look.

Jack said...

The Grace m903 is definitely not retro looking.

Gagdad Bob said...

That's a very nice write-up. I didn't know headphone amps have their own DACs.

Jack said...

I couldn't really say, though I don't think it is uncommon. The Grace approach is about clarity and detail. Other amps tend to color the sound in various, hopefully pleasing, ways. Grace gear seeks to be as pristine as possible.

It is a great place to work. I am the shipping manager. One of the Grace Brothers is a very fine guitarist and I knew him from that.

Gagdad Bob said...

I have Martin Logan speakers, which are also very transparent, accurate, and unforgiving. They make badly recorded music sound extra bad.

Jack said...

I did some recording a while back with the grace m801 microphone preamp and some good microphones. It was a revelation. Finally the sound!

So I agree transparent is a beautiful thing under the right circumstances.

Nothing like clarity to reveal all the flaws. Which I suppose applies to many other things as well. Wasn't Obama going to have the most transparent administration? I wonder why he decided against that?!

Gagdad Bob said...

Ironically, he's always been transparent to a few of us.

Jack said...

How that isn't obvious to everyone is one of the more depressing realities of the present moment.

Btw, have you ever listened to the group "Stars of the Lid"? If you haven't I highly recommend them. A whole new level of expressiveness in ambient music.

Gagdad Bob said...

Excellent essay by Kimball on "critical thinking." Along the lines we've been discussing, what passes for critical thinking may be understood as a hypertrophied left-brain view of the world:

"The first thing to notice about the vogue for ‘critical thinking’ is that it tends to foster not criticism but what one wit called ‘criticismism’: the ‘ism’ or ideology of being critical, which, like most isms, turns out to be a parody or betrayal of the very thing it claims to champion. In this sense, ‘critical thinking’ is an attitude guaranteed to instill querulous dissatisfaction, which is to say ingratitude, on the one hand, and frivolousness, on the other. Its principal effect, as the philosopher David Stove observed, has been ‘to fortify millions of ignorant graduates and undergraduates in the belief, to which they are already only too firmly wedded by other causes, that the adversary posture is all, and that intellectual life consists in “directionless quibble”’.

Gagdad Bob said...

BTW, really enjoying The Great Partnership -- sort of a kosher One Cosmos.

Here's the weird part: page 1 of the acknowledgements says "When, in 2009, Iain McGilchrist published his magisterial The Master and His Emissary, I knew I was on the right lines. I benefited enormously from a conversation I had with him."

That's nonlocality in action: sucked right into the same attractor.

Rick said...

Thinking of Spock, we find this article fascinating in many ways.

Gagdad Bob said...

Maybe he can get off on the David Gregory exception: he was just trying to educate.

Rick said...

I demand a timetable for when our boys can finally come home from the war on invisible guns..

DeAnn said...

"Then again, not all music is alive, is it?"
Oh, I think it all breathes, some with extreme halitosis, others breathing blusters best left unuttered/unheard. Music of the hemispheres, if that is the standard of all "music" then we are definitely dancing to the wrong stuff. I like the idea of this, I'm thinking about it ... . you may like this "Music of the Hemispheres Sheds New Light of Schizophernia" (Science Daily ... yeah, really)

"Again: organic. And receiving. The soul must become actively passive, so to (not) speak, similar to religious experience."
Actively passive ... is this as a sponge?

I really enjoy your writing ... and the reader comments.

JP said...

"Here's the weird part: page 1 of the acknowledgements says "When, in 2009, Iain McGilchrist published his magisterial The Master and His Emissary, I knew I was on the right lines. I benefited enormously from a conversation I had with him."

That's nonlocality in action: sucked right into the same attractor."

So, the verdict on McGilchrist is that he's pretty much on target with the diagnosis and the general tenor but is prescribing the wrong treatment?

Any parts of the book that should be specifically ignored because useless?

Gagdad Bob said...

I don't know, the whole thing's probably useless, but it's still a synchronicity!

ge said...

Is this the place for this?

EAR ...hEARt ...EARth ...hEAR

Ohr Herzen Erde höre

oreille cœur terre entendre

oreja corazón tierra oír

Er...i hope so
funny-- all words for these terms have/use/need/contain an 'R'

julie said...

You forgot "hEARth"


David J Quackenbush said...

I'm only 20% through, but find McGilchrist illuminating, honest and helpful. It is not trivial to find an honest and powerful mind connecting lots of familiar dots. Even if he doesn't have the Master's eye about the whole. He knows lots of dots, and lots of "local structure" they want to form, imo.

Gagdad Bob said...

It's true -- he's familiarized himself an awesome amount of research, both in science and the humanities. I know that feeling of trying to hold it all in your head while waiting for the "whole" to emerge from it.

ge said...

"The approach to music is like entering into relation with another living individual."
which are quite often recordings by the dead, parasoxically 'living on' via the magic of mikes & magnets & electricity...
Words have their pages where authors 'live', paintings their canvases, movies their screens, music their recordings [when not live]----i am among those whose love of music exists as 100% non-live performance situations, by choice. Studios then are like cathedrals where the mystery can be conjured, the magic captured, the moment preserved, or erased forever, or mixed another day... Hello
Glenn Gould!