The Two Sides of Music
Jack H. David Jr.

Austin Community College
Spring 1994
TCM 1603.7495

The Mathematics of Music

          Music is a phenomena that is experienced differently by different people. Each person who hears music is influenced by his or her own individual personality, knowledge, and life experiences. People with little or no musical training, who represent the vast majority of the listening audience, perceive music in a totally different way than the actual musicians who create the music. The human brain processes the experience of hearing music in two different ways; the process involved is different for musicians and nonmusicians. If a professional musician wishes to create music that the nonmusician majority will comprehend, enjoy and pay money to hear, the musician must understand this difference of perception between musicians and nonmusicians. It is also the responsibility of teachers of music to understand this concept to properly prepare the musicians of the future.

          Before we can understand the difference in the perception of music between musicians and nonmusicians, we must understand the source of that perception, the human brain. First, we will briefly examine the brain and how it works in general; then we will discover how the brain processes the experience of music.

I. The Two Brains

          The human brain weighs about 1600 grams (three pounds) and somewhat resembles a soft, wrinkled walnut. Yet despite this insignificant appearance, the human brain can store more information than all the libraries in the world. It is also responsible for our most primitive urges, our loftiest ideals, the way we think, even the reason why, on occasion, we sometimes do not think at all, but simply act (Restak 1). For some reason no one fully understands, we actually have two brains. To be more precise, our cerebral hemispheres look almost as if someone slipped a mirror down the center of our skulls so that one hemisphere reflects the other. Although detailed inspection reveals that the two hemispheres are not precisely alike, they appear very similar to the untrained observer (Restak 10). The two hemispheres of the brain are connected by a four-inch-long, quarter-inch-thick, pencil- shaped bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum, which integrates information from the two sides of the brain (Restak 245-247).

          Clinical and experimental evidence suggests that the left hemisphere of the brain is specialized for speech activity and the right hemisphere is specialized for many non-linguistic functions. Investigators of hemispheric asymmetry appear to agree on the fundamental nature of the processing differences between the two sides of the brain. Thomas G. Bever, of the department of psychology at Columbia University states: "the left hemisphere is specialized for propositional, analytic, and serial processing of incoming information, while the right hemisphere is more adapted for the perception of appositional, holistic and synthetic relations" (537). In most people, the left side of the brain deals with logic, language, reasoning, number, linearity, and analysis, etc., the so called "academic" activities.

          While the left side of the brain is engaged in these activities, the right side of the brain is in the "alpha wave" or resting state. The right side of the brain deals with images and imagination, daydreaming, color, parallel processing, face recognition, and pattern or map recognition, and the perception of music (Buzan 14). It has been claimed that these differences clearly reflect the traditional dualisms of intellect versus intuition, science versus art, and the logical versus the mysterious. It has also been suggested that lawyers and artists use different halves of the brain in the work and that the differences between the halves show up in activities not related to their work (Springer 6-7). In figure 1, we see some of the specific mental areas of the left and right hemispheres.

Figure 1
Right Hemisphere: Left Hemisphere: Color Logic Images Numbers Insight Language Dimension Analysis Imagination Linearity Daydreaming Reasoning Left-hand control Right-hand control

          Joseph E. Bogan, a neurosurgeon involved in brain research, believes that research on hemispheric differences has important implications for education. He argues that the current emphasis on the acquisition of verbal skills and the development of analytic thought processes neglects the development of important nonverbal abilities. As a result, Bogan claims, we are starving one half of the brain and ignoring its potential contribution to the whole person (Springer 7). The most important thing to consider is how the two hemispheres work together. Einstein and other scientists would seem to be predominately "left-brain" dominant, while Mozart, and other artistic people would appear to be "right- brain" dominant.

          Einstein, however, failed mathematics in school, and enjoyed such things as violin playing, art, sailing, and imagination games. Einstein claims to have achieved many of his more significant scientific insights through the use of his imagination; for example, while daydreaming on a hill on a summer day, he imagined riding sunbeams to the far extremities of the universe, and upon finding himself returned, "illogically" to the surface of the sun, he realized that the universe must indeed be curved and that his previous "logical" training was incomplete. The numbers, formulas, equations, and words he wrapped around this new image gave us the theory of relativity- a left and right brain synthesis (Buzan 15).

          One of the greatest composers, and musicians, who ever lived was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The miracles of his childhood read like legends, yet they have all been substantiated. At the age of three he could tune a violin perfectly, and was so sensitive to intonation that he would become physically ill if he heard music out of tune. He had an indelible memory and an infallible instinct; after hearing a melody once he could reproduce it without error. He could identify tones and chords blindfolded; today we would call that "perfect pitch". He read a piece of music at sight the way others played it after hours of practice. When he was five, Mozart wrote two minuets for harpsichord; at seven he wrote a complete sonata, and at eight he wrote his first symphony (Cross 513-514). Mozart was not only fluent in his native German, but also in French, Italian, and English, indicating that his left hemisphere was as active as was his right. The greatest possible human potential, then, can only be realized by the use of both sides of the brain.

II. Music: A Dual-Hemispheric Skill

          Some authors have emphasized the importance of the right hemisphere in music, while others have pointed to the importance of the left (Gates 403). Music is often contrasted with language as a highly structured, meaning-endowed, yet non- verbal system (Segalowitz 98). Since music is analogous to language without involving speech directly, it has generally been considered a right hemisphere skill. Musical skills, however, form a mixed set, some of which require left hemisphere integrity, and some of which require right hemisphere functioning (Segalowitz 31). Research has shown that neither cerebral hemisphere is totally "dominant" for music, but rather that both hemispheres are involved (Gates 403).

          The left hemisphere is apparently very important for musical abilities which share properties with speech, such as temporal order, duration, simultaneity, and rhythm and would therefore take a greater role when the sequential and analytic aspects of music are more important; however the right hemisphere is very important in many other aspects including perception of loudness, timbre, intonation and the expression of emotion (Gates 404,406,408). In one case, a person in whom the entire left hemisphere had been removed was able to sing familiar songs with few articulatory errors and it was concluded that in this case the right hemisphere controlled the neuromuscular aspects of singing (Gates 405). In a normal music situation, perception depends on the synthesis of pitches and rhythms; both processes are involved, not in terms of the specialization of one hemisphere that is "dominant" for music, but as an interaction of both hemispheres, each operating according to its own specialization, in the complex process of music perception (Gates 423). In figure 2, we see some of the specific mental areas of the left and right hemispheres as they apply to music.

Figure 2
Right Hemisphere: Left Hemisphere: Melody Form Timbre Tempo Emotion Rhythm Loudness Reading Intervals Writing Creativity Sequence Intonation Analysis

          There is a medical test called the Wada Test that is used to determine which cerebral hemisphere controls certain functions, some of which can vary from person to person. Sodium amobarbital, a barbiturate, is injected into the carotid artery on one side of the patient's neck. The result is that only the hemisphere on the side of the injection is "put to sleep" (Springer 22). When the right hemisphere was sedated by the drug, subjects were asked to sing familiar songs. The rhythmic element remained unaffected but the melody was gone; the subjects had lost all ability to distinguish one note from another (Bogan 524-525).

          Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), a French composer, suffered a stroke in the left hemisphere while at the peak of his career. Many of Ravel's musical skills remained intact; for example, he could recognize melodies and notice the smallest mistakes in performed music, and he maintained the keenest awareness of how well a piano was tuned. In contrast, however, he experienced a substantial loss in his ability to identify notes and recognize written music. He also could not play the piano or write music, even by dictation. Ravel's career as a composer had come to an end (Alajouanine 229-241).

III. Musicians and Nonmusicians

          An experiment was conducted at Columbia University where groups of musicians and nonmusicians listened to simple melodies of 12 to 18 notes followed by shorter melodic fragments. This was done in either the left ear alone or the right ear alone (Bever 538). Just as a given hemisphere controls the opposite hand, each of our ears also send the strongest, clearest signal to the opposite hemisphere (Springer 80-81). In each case, the subject was asked if the fragment was a part of the melody. The nonmusicians scored better in samples heard by the left ear, but the musicians scored better in the right ear samples. The conclusion that was drawn from this experiment was that a musically sophisticated subject can organize a melodic sequence in terms of the internal relation of its components. Dominance of the left hemisphere for analytic functions would explain dominance of the right ear for melody recognitions in experienced listeners; as their capacity for musical analysis increases, the left hemisphere becomes more involved in the processing of music (Bever 539).

          In another study, a group of non-musicians were observed to have a greater relative increase of blood flow in the right hemisphere while listening to a recording of classical guitar music compared to when they were listening to speech. In still another study, the amount of EEG alpha recorded over the right side decreased, indicating greater activation, when subjects sang a song as apposed to just speaking the words of the song. In all these experiments, it was found that this right hemisphere dominance in association with musical experiences only occurred with the nonmusicians, implying that trained musicians do not engage in the same mental process during musical tasks (Segalowitz 98). Nonmusicians perceive music in the right hemisphere because they are not analyzing what they are hearing; they simply experience it. Musicians, on the other hand, have analytical knowledge about what makes music work and they approach music more intellectually; therefore, they use their left brain to a greater extent.

IV. Automaticity

          As long ago as 1868, John Hughlings Jackson, a leading British neurologist proposed the idea that "in most people, the left side of the brain is the leading side or the side of the so called will, and that the right is the automatic side" (Springer 13). Donald A. Norman, of the University of California at San Diego, suggests that conscious awareness is limited in all aspects of seeing, hearing, perception, memory, thought, emotion, and action. You may believe that you control your actions, but in fact you have control only at the highest level of intention. You can not and do not monitor each muscle of the body. For example, if you clench your hand into a fist, thumb on top of the fingers, you are not aware of the muscle control, only of the intention and the result. If you were asked if your thumb initiated its movement before or after the fingers moved when you closed your fingers to make a fist, it is likely that you can answer only if you observed your own actions. If the thumb happens to be in the way of making a fist, it moves smoothly aside, lets the fingers clench, and then goes back on top, all without the need for conscious guidance or even awareness (14).

          As skill develops, a task appears to be done with more smoothness, with less effort. Moreover, the expert often does the task automatically, without conscious awareness of exactly what has been done. When you walk, you don't think about the placement of your legs, but where you wish to go. Flying an airplane or driving an automobile is done in that same way. When you learned to drive, you concentrated on how to move your arms and legs, then you worried about the smoothness of your activities. Eventually you reached the point where you simply thought of turning and your actions took care of themselves. The skilled walker just walks to the other side of the room; he skilled driver just goes somewhere; the skilled airplane pilot no longer manipulates controls and watches instruments, but simply flies. The person is walking, driving or flying; the legs or the automobile or the airplane are incidental tools to the activity (72-73).

           This right brain function of automaticity is crucial to the development of a good musician. The left brain may hold the programming or the "instruction manual", but a true musician must be able to use those instructions by instinct using the right brain. Norman cited examples of automaticity in walking, driving, or flying an airplane; these same principles apply to musical skills as well. When we are learning to play a musical instrument, we must consciously think about everything we are doing. For example, a beginner on the piano would see the note "D" on the music and think "O.K., treble clef, fourth line from the bottom... uh... let's see... every good boy DOES... that's a "D"... uh... the white key between the 2 black keys. An experienced pianist who has never taught a beginner may laugh at my narrative of all those mental steps just to play a "D", but we all had to think each step out when we were beginners. An experienced musician does not have to consciously think about each step; the right brain ability of automaticity makes it possible to simply make the music happen; the fingers just seem to move "by themselves".

           Nonmusicians watch their favorite musicians and it looks easy. If you watch a video of a rock guitarist, for example, he looks so relaxed that it is hard to believe he could play those fast and complex licks with such little effort. The thing that a nonmusician may not understand, is that before the right brain can go to "autopilot", the knowledge of how to play the instrument must be painstakingly programmed into the left brain. Playing an instrument is indeed a lot of fun, but practicing scales, arpeggios, etc., is usually not very much fun.

           Singing is a skill that requires the exact same process; just as an instrumentalist uses muscular control in the fingers, lips, etc., a singer must control his or her throat, oral cavity, lungs, diaphragm muscles, etc. If a singer is able to sing in tune with a good sound and good enough diction that the listener can clearly understand the words, that singer has spent considerable time learning those skills. After the singer's left brain has learned how to manipulate his or her body properly, the singer can use the right brain to sing without thinking about the mechanical process involved. Also, singing is a dual hemispheric skill in another way; verbal language is a left brain skill but melody, intonation, timbre, etc. are right brain processes. Singing words with a melody would therefore require the use of both hemispheres.

V. Emotion

           One of the most important contributions of the right hemisphere is the expression of emotion in music. It is the single most difficult thing for a music teacher to teach because the student's individuality is so important. Just as the flaws in a diamond give it its beauty, the subtle "imperfections" in a musical performance express emotion. That is the reason that music programmed into a computer often sounds cold and devoid of feeling; it is too perfect! The subtle changes in dynamics, rhythm, tempo, articulation, etc. are what gives music its beauty. This is true in all forms of music.

           The ability to express emotion in music is a very important skill for a musician to develop. As stated earlier, nonmusicians perceive music primarily in the right hemisphere; therefore they are most influenced by the emotional aspects of music rather than the intellectual ones.

           I have heard many classically trained musicians that had amazing technique and exhibited astounding virtuosity, but showed little or no emotion in their performance. Even in the classical music field, when there is an opening in a symphony orchestra or opera company, quite often an individual with less impressive technique, but with the ability to invoke an emotional response in the listener will get the job.

VI. Musical Interpretation

           One of the most important ways a musician can play with emotion is in the way he or she interprets music that was written by the composer. Classical music, for example, which was written on paper by the composer, is generally expected to be played exactly as written, without any improvisation by the performer. If the performer only plays exactly what he or she sees on the paper, however, the result will be painfully boring. Dr. David Pino, professor of clarinet at Southwest Texas State University, wrote the following:

Musical interpretation is the manner in which the performer's own ideas are substantively fused with the composer's obvious ones to achieve the greatest musical result. There is nothing magical or secretive about any particular interpretation of a piece of music. Two equally great performances may be very different from each other. This fact, in itself, proves that there is never only one right way to play a piece of music.

I have encountered many musicians who proudly claim that they take great pains to play music according to all the printed markings on the page, with no exceptions right down to the last detail. This attitude is what I call literal-mindedness; it is characterized by an almost belligerent adherence to the idea that if the composer had intended anything more, he would have written it in. Or, that if the composer had intended anything less, he would have written it differently or would have entirely omitted it. When listening to a performer who works from that philosophy I am always struck again by the fact that he is yet another player who is "doing a workmanlike job," but who is definitely not an artist. He has missed the point: Musical notation, even today, is imperfect at best and, at worst, inadequate (118-119).

VII. Improvisation

           One of the most important elements of music is improvisation, which could be defined as "spontaneous composition" or "making it up as you go along". Much of the music in the world was created in this way and was passed from generation to generation without being notated in a written form. Improvisation is both the most widely practiced of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it (Bailey 1). Improvisation was an important part of European music through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. Manuscripts and printed scores of the Baroque era, for example, give us only the vaguest notion of how the music sounded in actual performance. The composer considered his written score as an outline to be interpreted, in full, by the performer. Great improvisation was considered one of the highest forms of musical art, and the ability to improvise, a performer's crowning artistic asset. Even later European composers, such as Beethoven, who were known for their written compositions, were accomplished improvisers. Czerny, a student of Beethoven, said of the master: "His improvisations were most beautiful and striking. In whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry and many would break out into loud sobs" (Ostransky 51-53).

           Musical improvisation is all but forgotten today in the world of classical or "serious" music. Improvisation is, however, a vital part of virtually every other style of music in the world. Jazz, for example, is an art form heavily dependant upon improvisation. There is no doubt that the single most important contribution to the revitalization of improvisation in Western music in the 20th century was that made by jazz (Bailey 64).

           Because early jazz musicians had little or no musical training, they created a type of music that was almost totally based upon improvisation. In fact, these early jazz musicians were proud to say that they "played by ear", and they were somewhat suspicious that theoretical training might stifle the excitement and mystery (Coker 54). Jazz was, in my opinion, a "right brain" kind of music; they didn't think about it; they just did it. In the years that followed, there were more and more written "charts" and jazz gradually became more complicated and required more formal training; however, improvisation was, and is, the "lifeblood" of the music.

           In university music schools today, jazz music, including improvisation, is taught in a very theoretical and analytical manner. This music which was born of instinct and raw emotion is now broken down into chord symbols, modal scales and rhythmic patterns, and is taught in such a sterile way that the emotional factor is often lost. I was in a college jazz improvisation class a while back where the instructor, or the textbook, was prone to say things such as: "observe how Charlie Parker skillfully utilizes the tritone substitution by playing the mixolydian mode with a flat-5 and flat-9 over the ii-V-I harmonic progression." Excuse me, but give me a break! I really don't believe that Charlie was thinking about much more than the good looking woman he was checking out across the room; he just played. Parker was well versed in the available theoretical knowledge of the day, but when he improvised, I believe that he did it by sheer instinct. I have never heard a college professor say something like: "just let yourself go, clear your mind, close your eyes, feel the music inside yourself, ride the changes like you are riding a wave, tap into your soul and let the raw emotion flow like a mighty river breaking through a dam, don't think about it, just do it..." You may think this sounds like some kind of weird zen/hippy philosophy, but it is the way real musicians improvise, at least the ones that I would want to hear. I have often heard improvisation that was flawless in every conceivable theoretical way, but that was very boring to listen to because it was totally devoid of feeling.

           In today's music, emotional improvisation is extremely important. Not only jazz, but blues, funk, soul, country, and rock-&-roll, to name a few, are heavily dependant upon effective improvisation. One example of very emotional improvisation is the rock classic, "Black Magic Woman" by Santana. The guitar solo is not flashy, or filled with intricate licks, but is very emotional. Carlos Santana plays very subtle musical ideas, such as "bending" notes or playing one note with syncopated rhythmic patterns over several chord changes, creating tension and resolution in such a way that is truly artistic.

VIII. The Music Establishment: Left Brain Bias

           University music schools expend so much energy analyzing the component elements of music, and teaching the theoretical intricacies of music, that they often "don't see the forest for the trees". Professional classical musicians, who are successful, have mastered the art of performing with emotion; those same individuals who also teach at universities often fail to effectively teach the concept of emotion in music to their students. They expect and even demand that students play with emotion, but offer little assistance in that quest.

           Many "educated" musicians do not appreciate music unless it is "profound", whereas nonmusicians, who are in the majority, usually prefer music that makes them simply "feel good". A musician may write or perform a piece of music that is extremely complex and difficult to play, and that is heralded by the academic music world as a masterpiece; but that same piece of music if heard by "the average guy on the street", could be perceived as "boring", or "too cerebral". Of course the "educated" musician could then consider the nonmusician to be an "idiot" who doesn't know good music when he hears it. So... the musician goes to college for 10-12 years, gets 3 or 4 degrees and is self-satisfied in his knowledge that his music is the only "real" music and that anyone who cannot comprehend this profound music is a "cretin". But what does that properly educated musician do now to support himself? He does the only thing he can do; he goes back to college and teaches music to a new generation that will in turn reject anything but "proper" music and the cycle starts all over again.

           Jazz music, which was originally created by African Americans and was to a great extent, a fusion of European and African music is now virtually dominated by music professors who try to force rigid European standards of analysis on a form of music that was created without a written "language". Jazz is a type of music that was born of raw emotion and instinct and was based primarily upon improvisation. In their quest to be accepted by the classical/ university music school "establishment", jazz educators have developed intricate "left brain" explanations for a form of music that, in my opinion, defies rational explanation. The "intellectual" jazz played at colleges today only faintly resembles the "real" jazz music that can still be heard, if you know where to look.

IX. Garage Bands: Right Brain Bias

           In fairness, I must say that there are many musicians that go too far the other way. There are musicians, or people that at least think they are musicians, that are totally ignorant, often by choice, of music theory of any kind. These are the people that can not read music, do not understand musical form, can only play in two or three keys, do not know how to properly tune their instruments, and can only play cover songs that they have learned by ear by listening to the record over and over again. They play these worn out standards, for the most part, as close to the record as possible and have little understanding of creativity or individuality. Some of these people can actually make some money playing in funky old beer joints. They dream of stardom, but few of them will ever achieve it. If you were playing with them and said: "O.K., we're going to do 12-bar blues in F minor, from the five, and watch me for the breaks"... the only response you would get is a stupid look on their faces. There are rare cases of individuals with extraordinary natural talent that play very well, by instinct, despite their lack of training; sooner or later, however, they will have to learn some music theory if they hope to co-exist with real musicians.

X. Conclusion

           The human brain is very complex in the way it perceives information that it receives through sensory input. The two cerebral hemispheres perform different functions; the left hemisphere processes information that requires analysis or some type of language to comprehend, and the right hemisphere deals with the symbolic, non-verbal and emotional portion of what we call reality. If we have to "think" about something, we are using our left hemisphere, but if we simply act by "instinct", we are using our right hemisphere. The human experience of emotion is also a function of the right hemisphere.

           Musicians tend to perceive the experience of music primarily in the left hemisphere because their training and experience makes them inclined to think about the music they are playing or hearing. Nonmusicians, on the other hand, usually do not analyze music, but simply experience it, in which case they are using the right hemisphere. The nonmusician majority, that tends to perceive the experience of music in the right hemisphere, is more interested in how the music makes them feel, than how intellectually profound it is. A common thing for a nonmusician to say is: "I don't know much about music, but I know what I like."

           Many musicians, myself included, also consider the expression of emotion to be a very important element of good music. I've heard so many musicians that it takes a lot to really impress me, but a musician that plays with emotion and can create an emotional response in his or her audience is much more likely to get my attention. It is possible for a person to think like a musician while actually performing, then to "switch gears" and listen to other musicians and simply experience the music without analyzing it. After I play a solo, and it is another musician's turn to play, I often step to the side, turn my back on the audience and become part of the audience by watching and listening to the other musician.

           Each musician has to decide what is most important in his or her quest to be a good musician; is it more important to achieve great educational goals and create profound music that only other musicians can appreciate, or is it more important to understand what it is that the nonmusician majority wants to hear, and actually make some money. There are many people that have found a way to do both of these things, but it is often a very difficult thing to do.

           It is the responsibility of teachers of music to understand the difference of perception between musicians and nonmusicians and to give their students a view of the real world and of the employment possibilities available. It is the responsibility of a professional musician to entertain and bring joy to average everyday people, and hopefully to earn a living and find personal fulfillment as well. I have been told that a truly dedicated musician will seek fulfillment in the creation of the music and will not seek to whore his or her talent to the masses for money. This is known as the "art for art's sake" philosophy. I personally believe that this concept is nothing but plain stupid. The lights are low; there's magic in the air; so sit back, chill out, and enjoy the show.

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