Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, supplied a group of people with Sobe Adrenaline Rush, an “energy” drink that was supposed to make them feel more alert and energetic. (The drink contained a potent brew of sugar and caffeine which, the bottle promised, would impart “superior functionality”). Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. Shiv found that people who paid discounted prices consistently solved about thirty percent fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks. The subjects were convinced that the stuff on sale was much less potent, even though all the drinks were identical.

The same article — which doesn’t intend to say anything about music — goes on to a familiar kind of observation about wine-connoisseurship:

It’s pretty clear that we expect more expensive wines to taste better. (This expectation is visible in an fMRI machine.) But it’s also clear that, at least for amateurs, this expectation is mostly false: when you give people bottles of wine without any price information, there is no correlation between the cost of the wine and its subjective ratings. A $8 bottle is just as enjoyable as an $80 one.

One thing I wonder, though: is it all about what I personally am paying, or is it more about theoretical value? If I’m given a free ticket to a gala, do I nevertheless enjoy it more for knowing that other people are paying a thousand bucks? Did the people who got the energy-drink discount know that they were getting a special deal? This seems to me a crucial factor.

Another wrinkle: money may not be the only marker of exclusivity that operates in the enjoyment of music. The late Sir George Guest told me that, when he took over the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, even their developing excellence didn’t bring an audience for anything they did. Everybody went to KIng’s College down the street and ignored St. John’s. He then had a shrewd idea. He advertised their Advent Carol Service as involving “Admission by Ticket Only, to be Obtained Gratis at the Porter’s Lodge.” The college was not only besieged by the hordes wanting to get in, but the event provided a popular annual broadcast for the BBC. There were many other factors that made the choir deservedly world-famous, but Sir George was convinced that the initial leg-up for them came from that innocent ploy.


There is a story of an 18th-century English gentleman who was showing off his newly redesigned garden in the fashionable style of Capability Brown (a landscape artist who leaves many tracks in literature, from Jane Austen to Tom Stoppard).

“And here, Sir, we come to my Ha-Ha. We call it that because the surprise of suddenly coming upon it causes the stroller to cry, ‘Ha ha.'”

To which his visitor asked: “But what, Sir, do you call it the second time you encounter it?”

The fine science blogger Jonah Lehrer, who has been cited here before, has lately been writing about music and our psychological pleasure in it. A Harvard music professor has written this to him:

If we derive pleasure from anticipating potential connections – and especially being surprised by thwarted expectations – then it becomes difficult to explain why we would want to listen to a piece more than once: the novelty factor wears off, the uncertainty factor becomes less pronounced. In principle, the piece should get less interesting each time we hear it. Experience, however, shows that this is not the case: we greatly enjoy re-hearing familiar pieces. The whole recording industry makes a lot of money on the basis of this phenomenon.

Which leads Lehrer to ask, among other things:

This, of course, raises the larger question of why certain pieces of music don’t go stale. Why are we still listening to Bach’s fugues, or Beethoven’s symphonies, or Kind of Blue? What is it about these particular soundwaves that allows them to evade the corticofugal boredom?

Today is the Super Bowl. While most viewers of it are all caught up in the excitment and suspense that mostly hinges on the outcome, a higher level of appreciators of the game are much more involved in the process. The highest level of connoisseurs of football may watch the game, or certain plays, for weeks, months, or years, with pleasure and understanding.

I think a Bach fugue enjoys much of this quality — besides many others, of course. The person who is musically equipped to do so — or just curious and perceptive or focused (or just lucky) — will be so interested in the process that, as may be the case with a few tennis matches in history, it is a source of unending pleasure. Surprise becomes the least of it.

Improvisation as Lying

November 29, 2009

Musicians who improvise know this on some level. But Jonah Lehrer (whose valuable writing has been referred to here before) writes in a new article of some studies of damaged frontal lobes that put improvisation in the realm of confabulation, or a kind of lying with no immoral implications. In it he refers back to an earlier article in which he told us that

The first study, led by Charles Limb of the NIH and Johns Hopkins University, examined the brain activity of jazz musicians as they played on a piano. The musicians began with pieces that required no imagination such as the C-major scale and a simple blues tune they’d memorized in advance. But then came the creativity condition: The musicians were told to improvise a new melody as they played alongside a recorded jazz quartet.

While the musicians riffed on the piano, giant magnets whirred overhead monitoring minor shifts in their brain activity. The researchers found that jazz improv relied on a carefully choreographed set of mental events, which allowed the musicians to discover their new melodies. Before a single note was played, the pianists exhibited a “deactivation” of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a brain area associated with planned actions and self-control. In other words, they were inhibiting their inhibitions, which allowed the musicians to create without worrying about what they were creating.

But it’s not enough to just unleash the mind — successful improv requires a very particular kind of expression. That’s why the fMRI machine also recorded a spike in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a fold of frontal lobe just behind the eyes. This area is often linked with self-expression — it lights up, for instance, whenever people tell a story in which they’re the main character. The scientists argue that this part of the brain is required for jazz improv because the musicians are channeling their artistic identity, searching for the notes that best summarize their style. “Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form,” Limb says. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

In the second experiment scientists at Harvard investigated the varieties of musical improvisation. They recruited 12 classically trained pianists and had them spontaneously create both rhythms and melodies. Unlike the Hopkins experiment, which compared brain activity between improv and memorized piano melodies, this brain scanning experiment was primarily designed to compare activity between two different kinds of improv.

As expected, both improv conditions led to a surge in activity in a variety of brain areas, including parts of the premotor cortex and, most intriguingly, the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution — the novel musical patterns, after all, must still be translated by the fingers. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language — it includes Broca’s area, which is essential for the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people create music on the piano? The scientists argue that expert musicians create new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is another word.

We have all learned, to one degree or another, not to lie — or at least not to get caught at it. In improvisation, we need to get caught at it. I have long contended that education in music is more a matter of freeing up capabilities than it is acquiring them. Picasso says something like that, as Lehrer quotes:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” From the perspective of the brain, Picasso is on to something, as the frontal lobes (and the DPLFC in particular) are the last brain areas to fully develop. And so the super-ego settles in, and we become too self-conscious to create. Obviously, we need the frontal lobes to function – just look at the tragic life of SB – but every talent comes with a tradeoff. When we repress our urge to confabulate we also repress the urge to create. To quote Picasso once again: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” But it’s still a lie.

sociall media II I used to work for a powerful executive in the record industry who maintained that many people were reluctant to buy classical recordings because they got embarrassed in the stores. They were uncertain about pronunciations, and therefore shied away from exposing themselves to the disdain of record-store clerks. If you’re old enough to remember record stores, you may have encountered some clerks that would in fact laugh someone to scorn for having learned in French class that final letters are usually silent and thus leaving off the final S in an exception like Saint-Saëns — or the final Z in Boulez or Berlioz. Such shibboleths can constitute a real self-esteem minefield for the timid. But one doesn’t have to be a wimp to want to avoid the company of snobs.

The playing field is now quite different. But while record-store clerks are no longer the factor they used to be, people still like what they know about. How do we achieve (at least relative) confidence in what can seem fenced-off areas? Overwhelmingly, we get it from our friends. How do we learn most cultural details? Bette Midler claims that she pronounces her first name as she does because her mother thought that’s how Bette Davis said hers. (How any woman in post-World War II society could have made that mistake defies belief, of course.) In turn, we know how to pronounce La Midler’s name only because we’ve heard it before. The same with sports. We weren’t born knowing what strikes, balls, and bunts were, and we didn’t learn about them by reading a book. We heard about them from our friends. We’re always lamenting declines in music education, as well we might. But the most effective communication is from friend to friend (which of course also means that effective music education of a person can also produce music education for the friends of that person).

The always-brilliant Jonah Lehrer put a short piece on his blog yesterday about social networks and economic and cultural choices.

After all, the best way to figure out what kind of music you like, or whether or not you’ll enjoy Napoleon Dynamite, is to study your friends. If they’re looking forward to the new Monsters of Folk album, then so are you; if they enjoy old kung-fu movies, then you probably do as well.

Even someone whose musical tastes are far-developed, unusually broad, and constantly expanding — like, say, me — is much influenced in certain cultural choices, and in chances he is willing to take, by his daily social contacts. Hearing enthusiasm expressed about a new string quartet or composer or recording at the dinner table is marketing gold, of course. But the invasion of Facebook into a person’s life, if he or she uses the Friends feature intelligently and not just as a race for numbers, can actually be a valuable extension of this process, as well as being a highly efficient one in terms of scale. I find that I attend many a good event because a Facebook Friend references it, usually leading me directly to information and purchase facilities. (By the same token, when I arrive at the event, I am likely to see friends — and Friends — all around me.)

This is simply human nature exercising itself by other means and on a different scale. We remain social beings under all circumstances and through all filters.

Classical music marketing in many ways remains in its infancy. But, as has been asserted here before in other connections, new technologies offer us more effective means — and far less costly ones — than we dreamed of only a few years ago. Some of us are spending a lot of time thinking how to use these better. I have experienced good results from using such conduits of communication to share with others what I find rewarding. I’m finding that the best way of employing them is to consult my own experience of what has worked on me and to follow the most direct routes to people — most commonly to friends and thus to their friends. While there is what was recently a futuristic side to the technology involved, the actual fundament is simply organic. It’s social. It reveals that buying a full-page ad in the Times is a far more artificial measure.