Music and the Brain

It’s Music and the Brain,
One is a genius,
The other’s insane!

“That’s so animal!” my friend Lysandra exclaimed over the soulful thump of The Soul Children’s afrobeat. “I can’t get into it.”

“But animal is great!” I yelled back. “Why deny our animal? We’re part beast and part logician. Why can’t we embrace both?”

This hit home with a concept that’s been fermenting in my head for a while now. In music there are two ancient traditions that got mixed up in the early part of this century. I am thankful for this, because we got the blues out of it and soon after jazz. If America sank into the ocean tomorrow, at least we got jazz out there in the world.

Everyone knows the basic tenets of the differences in Western traditions and African traditions. European music was all about chords, structures, and arias. African music was dance and drums, the heartbeat of the earth.

In my new favorite non-fiction This is Your Brain On Music, Daniel Levitin lays out the basic components of music, the basic structures in the brain, and how it all interacts. Toward the end of the book, a bit that blew my mind (har har) involved the cerebellum and the role it plays in music listening. Through some pretty inspired detective work and collaborations (including input from Francis Crick!) they found that things like rhythm and beat, planning, expectation, and movement take place largely in the cerebellum (the oldest structure in the mammalian brain).

We already knew that harmony and listening to the soprano part/main melody takes place in the frontal lobe. The reason two entirely different traditions of music can develop is that they take place in different parts of the brain! The African tradition is cerebellum-heavy (rhythmic, repetitive, and dancey) and the European tradition is frontal lobe heavy (melodic, harmonic, and, well, cerebral).

These traditions obviously exist today. People who grow up listening to hip hop are fine with repetitive beats and little to no melody, and people who grew up listening to alternative are fine with undanceability in favor of harmony and melody.

I grew up with both these types of music, and on top of that, I had Arabic music. Sure my parents showed me jazz and classical, sure I grew up in the ghetto and listened to quite a bit of RnB and Michael Jackson. But really it’s that Arabic music that throws the wrench in the works. I got all kinds of exposure to modes, rhythms, and timbres from a way earlier age than most Americans, and by that I mean since negative nine months.

What does that mean as far as my musical tastes? Well, I’m not fine with crap production on Western music or the absence of harmony in African music. I enjoy them both but am satisfied with neither. I want both. At the same time.

What most people don’t seem to realize is that all hip hop is electronic music. Most recorded things are samples or vocals. That’s where the amazing production comes in. There are a handful of pop acts who are utilizing the inherent awesomeness of this electronic sound to add danceability. Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, they’ve been doing it for a while now. Unfortunately, the songs themselves are terrible. They just sound good.

That’s where I come in. I want to ZIP the music back and forth between the frontal lobe and the cerebellum. And I want it to sound phat. Freaking LOUD and sonically universally amazingly wonderful. No frequency between 5 and 20,000 Hz will be left out (the low bottom is for rumble). When I saw My Bloody Valentine at the Santa Monica Civic Center, they played so loud my shirt rattled and it was specfuckingtacular. Thank Krishna for earplugs.

So Europe and Africa are still fighting and that’s silly. The East, what with Goa, psy, and the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack are making their presence know too, though with less hullabaloo. But the new region thrusting its music hand in the potluck?

The world of Digital. Yes kiddies, the magical land of zeroes and ones. Look around you. You’re on the internet right now. That’s your brainspace right now. Not America or England or Nepal or even Canada, but the internet. The Brave New Almost-World. And since music affects your entire brain and vice versa, cyberspace wants to make its voice known too.

You know what cyberspace music sounds like? Yeah. It’s loud. It’s weird. Hilarious and tear-jerking and thoughtful and incredibly well-informed.

When I hear music now, I’m so god damned well informed all I can think of is, “Why aren’t you doing this? Or this? Why didn’t you use this or that awesome thing I just wikied?” All music sounds like people ignoring things. There are so many possibilities. “Simplify, simplify, simplify” doesn’t mean “crap, boring, lalalalalaicanthearyou.” It means listen to Lead Belly and make the best music you can think of that might seem appropriate in 2020. It’s the future, man. Dude. The future.

My production isn’t quite there yet, but I know that with the right team we can deliver this stuff live. Live, people. These wonderful ideas I have, you don’t have to react, “Well, that’s a nice dream, Paul.” It’s possible, now. The Digital tradition has caught up with technology. These tools are ripe for the plucking.

So that’s what I’m going for. Full brain stimulation. In a hundred years, will cognitive scientists argue about whether our brain is hardwired for the internet, too? Isn’t the brain already the world’s greatest computer? We’ll never know, but lets hope our music shows we were thinking about it.

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