Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The TED Conferences (self-described as “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”) are a highly acclaimed series of presentations from the world’s most influential thinkers, innovators, and artists. Brilliant minds speaking about important topics in an approachable way.
I wanted to draw attention to one music-focused talk that I found particularly interesting. Watching the video would probably be one of the better uses of 20 minutes you ever spend in your life, but I wanted to point out some highlights and insights:
- Zander, in a compellingly funny and animated way, attempts to prove that A.) no one is tone deaf, and B.) that classical music is not dead. Both lofty ideas that are convincingly explained.
- “I’m not gonna go on until every single person in this room, downstairs, and in Aspen, and everybody else looking, will come to love and understand classical music.” You may be skeptical at this point, but aside from that: why does this statement matter? He goes on: “You’ll notice there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that this is gonna work… it’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream!…. of course I’m not sure they’ll be up to it…’ “
- He proceeds to play a Chopin prelude and, with some explanation (“This is a B, and this is a C. And the job of the C is to make the B sound sad.”) and one simple seed of an idea, transforms the listener into fully appreciating the piece on an emotional level. He includes comparisons to Shakespeare, Nelson Mandela, birds, Irish street kids, and an Auschwitz survivor along the way.
- “The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound… he depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. My job was to awaken possibility in other people.”
While music is one of the best ways to tap into emotions and creativity, I also argue that music is another form of philosophy. It’s one of the reasons I chose to study music at a university level, and why I continue to apply musical theory to almost every endeavor I take on. It’s a facet that Zander seems to appreciate as well. Studying and listening to music can unlock and refine a whole array of skills that are as useful in the music world as they are in other disciplines.
- The sheer art of listening (which is a learned skill, mind you, and requires lots of practice…) is probably the most essential ability one can possess when working with colleagues or holding a leadership position. Studying music teaches you to listen differently, more carefully, and to be perceptive of nuance and subtlety.
- Playing music with other people makes apparent the necessity for generosity, trust, cooperation, and teamwork. None of these things are ever mentioned when playing a 12-bar blues with some friends, but the best musicians (and leaders) practice all of them at all times.
- Music theory blends mathematical concepts with imagination, emotion, and creativity. This delicate balance of structural integrity and freedom is a struggle faced by most entrepreneurs and CEO’s the world over. Building an organization, whether it’s a church or school or community or business, requires a successful balance of Policy and Ideas. Procedure and Dreaming. This is something musicians practice daily.
Music-as-Philosophy is a topic best saved for a separate post, but the point is: music appreciation leads to the appreciation of other facets of life. Music is simply a means to an insightful end.
“Looking at Plato’s works in their original scroll form, he noticed that every 12 lines there was a passage that discussed music.” – excerpt from NPR.org: “A Musical Message Discovered In Plato’s Works“
This article is fascinating to me, not because of the DaVinci Code-like revelation, but rather the emphasis on the number 12. It is a story that, yet again, links mathematics and music. It also dovetails nicely with a post of mine from January 2009 (“Twelve“), while referencing Pythagoras and the importance placed on ratio and proportion (also detailed here, “The Golden Page“)
There is no real conclusion drawn from the NPR feature, so we are left wondering why the preeminent thinker of 300 B.C. felt strongly enough about music to encode its defining principles into an otherwise non-musical work. The real takeaway here, and this is irrefutable: Plato felt compelled to draw connections between various arts and disciplines. Perhaps by conceptually linking disparate ideas, Plato believed he could reconcile the conflict and strife that always seem to arise when concepts appear at odds. (Science vs. religion, math vs. art, sculpture vs. painting, etc…)
These links and connections, as expressed through music, are what BlogSounds is all about.
- The Post arranged to have a man play the violin for 45 minutes in the middle of a busy DC-Metro station. The material consisted of six different works by J.S. Bach.
- Reactions from onlookers and passersby were documented, peaking at mild, short-lived interest. (Oddly enough, some of the strongest reactions seemed to come from children, whose parents were quick to scurry them along regardless…)
- In total, only six people stopped to listen and twenty gave money (grand total: $32)
- Upon completion there was no applause or acknowledgement.
The violinist was world-renowned virtuoso Joshua Bell, playing a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin (more on Bell and his extravagant instrument here). Two days prior, Bell performed a sold-out show in Boston where seats averaged $100 each.
A litany of questions and conclusions followed (“In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?…”). But for me, it brought to mind a comment from jazz pianist Bill Evans in his biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, where he laments the fact that jazz music is all too often relegated to being background music for the din of conversation in a club. Bill estimated that only a very small percentage of his listeners during a performance actually picked up on the nuances and excitement of what he and his trio were playing.
The DC experiment demonstrates the importance of the listener participation. Listening to music is not a passive act, where the notes and chords wash over your ears and into your head effortlessly. To get the most out of a piece of music, and thus putting it on par with a great novel in terms of complexity and storytelling magic, the listener needs to take an active role in the process. Literature transcends entertainment as soon as you learn to read, and music can do the same when you learn to listen.
Hearing and listening are not the same thing, as the DC Metro experiment makes clear…
Here is a link to a great New York Times conversation with Aniruddh D. Patel, author of “Music, Language, and the Brain,” fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, and self-proclaimed Neuroscientist of Music. One insight, following the discovery of a parrot named Snowball who dances to the beat of a Backstreet Boys song:
“What do humans have in common with parrots? Both species are vocal learners, with the ability to imitate sounds. We share that rare skill with parrots. In that one respect, our brains are more like those of parrots than chimpanzees. Since vocal learning creates links between the hearing and movement centers of the brain, I hypothesized that this is what you need to be able to move to beat of music.”
“Before Snowball, I wondered if moving to a musical beat was uniquely human. Snowball doesn’t need to dance to survive, and yet, he did. Perhaps, this was true of humans, too?”
The question, of course, remains why? Why do we, along with parrots, respond instinctively to music?
My take: it could be that music provides the same “neuro-catharsis” during daytime hours as dreaming does while we’re asleep, stimulating our brains and escaping our analytical reality. Music (and through association, dance) may be a vestigial “sanity check,” a screensaver of the mind, to bring us out of our day-to-day and prevent our mental processes from becoming to static and habitual.