Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Psychology and Music

I've thought for some time, and I'm thinking much more, recently, that an excellent way, and in some respects, the best way to study the workings of the human mind is via music. The piano, especially. Think about it -- if I gave you a string of, say 30 random numbers, could you recall them?

Or 1000 numbers in a pattern? Now watch what a pianist does: he plays many more things in sequence, in much more complex variations, sometimes for hours without ever looking at a piece of sheet music. What process of memory is involved? What does that say about the principles of how memory works?

Or consider what neural connections must be formed to precisely play a complex work of music? All the practice, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of hours over years, to refine the semi-automatic selection of tens of thousands of muscle fibers in endless variations of control so that ten fingers precisely fly over the keys, in precise coordination with a streaming flux of sound. A precision that eliminates all contradictions in the choice of those thousands of muscles, made in milliseconds.

 Or consider the emotions evoked by any composition -- how music (as Ayn Rand noted) is the only art form that is a direct link between perception and emotions:
 The fundamental difference between music and the other arts lies in the fact that music is experienced as if it reversed man’s normal psycho-epistemological process. The other arts create a physical object (i.e., an object perceived by man’s senses, be it a book or a painting) and the psycho-epistemological process goes from the perception of the object to the conceptual grasp of its meaning, to an appraisal in terms of one’s basic values, to a consequent emotion. 
The pattern is: from perception—to conceptual understanding—to appraisal—to emotion. The pattern of the process involved in music is: from perception—to emotion—to appraisal—to conceptual understanding. Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly.  (Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto)
...musical phrases can be artistically engineered like a universal language with a precise vocabulary to create the exact emotions a composer wants another person to feel, and influence, to that extent (however generally, yet in some sense, so precisely) the thoughts another person might have, and that the composer wants them to have.

 Or volition -- which directs the learning process, maintains the effort, guiding your perception to focus on every note and correct every mistake, accepting no errors (because if you do accept errors, your learning never converges on competence), refining the precision, speeding the tempo, defining the nuance of interpretation.

 Or the method of repetition that starts from slow, halting attempts at precision (in the beginner) in moving ten fingers in so many patterns, gradually automatizing the control (because you can't consciously control all of it directly) while correcting errors one at a time, but always under focused conscious direction -- faster and faster (as required by the piece), so that dozens of notes per second can be played with a precision of force and timing in complex relationships -- but every single note played by every single finger in every instant is all under the full awareness of your conscious mind, as if time has slowed down while you play it.

 Or abstraction, as you learn more and more pieces, and your mind integrates the endless varieties of musical patterns, until it generalizes the principles, in some sense, of melody and harmony and chords and rhythms so that playing an instrument feels like a direct link between the sounds in your mind and the motions of your hands, or the notes on a page and the sounds in your mind, an almost effortless translation, an extension of your body and thoughts....

 I'm not there (and never will be -- too much an engineer with too little training, too little practice, and too little discipline!), but I do have so much admiration for those who are there, who've had that dedication, and who have achieved such a remarkable level of ability, of which any performance is a testament to their integrity to that purpose.

 A lot more could said, but I think there's something here that could be applied to any field of learning. Imagine if everyone in every field could function with the virtuousity and dedication and passion and honesty of a concert pianist toward his craft. What a world we would have.

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