Friday, October 2, 2015

Music: A Not-So-Universal Language

Tony Alonso writes in the October-December issue of Liturgy about music’s power in the brain and what it means for liturgical choices. How is the emotion evoked by music related to worship? He uses the work of Daniel Levitin in this book This is Your Brain on Music to discuss what pastors, musicians, and liturgists can learn from recent neuroscience.

Although people have believed that children do not retain memories before the age of five, studies now reveal that children recognize music heard even before they were born. The time of adolescence is the next remarkable point when music tastes are shaped.
There are several reasons why this age is so crucial in shaping musical taste. First, several studies reveal that the age of ten or eleven is a turning point for most children in which they begin to demonstrate a deeper interest in music, even if they had not previously. Second, because of the intense development that takes place in our teenage years as we experiment with new ideas and challenge decisions handed down to us from our parents, this time of our life tends to be intensely emotionally charged; we tend to remember things that have an emotional connection because “our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.” . . .  Third, in our teenage years, we begin to form social groups intentionally with people we want to be like or with whom we share common interests. Externalizing social bonds, our musical preferences become an important way in which we signal our individual and group identities. Fourth, while our brains develop and form new connections at a very rapid rate throughout adolescence, this slows down dramatically following our teenage years. 
 Perhaps the most important way this development continues throughout our lives is through the development of what Levitin calls “musical schemas,” which frame our understanding by informing our cognitive models and expectations. Nonmusical schemas are central to the way in which the brain processes standard situations, extracting things common to a variety of situations and providing a framework within which to place them. Our schemas shape our expectations of what we would expect to find in a particular situation as well as what elements are flexible. . . Not only do our schemas account for why certain sounds outside our culture may challenge our understanding or appreciation of particular types of music, they also demonstrate why, as we grow, we acquire a wider array of schemas for particular genres, styles, and eras. . . . Put very simply, as we mature, we tend to prefer music that is neither too simple nor too complex in relation to the musical schemas we have previously developed: “at a neural level, we need to be able to find a few landmarks in order to invoke a cognitive schema.”  . . . When music is perceived as too predictable and without variation from other music we have heard, we find it simplistic and unchallenging. However, if we are unable to invoke a cognitive schema in order to sort out what is happening in a piece of music, we are similarly likely to find the music unsatisfying. 
 . . . Like any sensory experience, safety and familiarity are key components to the way in which music carries positive emotional resonances. Because our experience of music often alters our mood and because we often identify music as a way in which we connect with something larger than ourselves, including the sacred, we are often reluctant to completely let our guard down to new music.
We hear music, in other words, according to what we have learned to hear throughout our lives. What, then, are the consequences for musical worship choices? 

Alonso’s suggestions will be summarized in the October 16 offering of this blog. Earlier, you may read his entire essay in Liturgy online or through your library’s subscription.

Tony Alonso is a composer of liturgical music and a PhD student in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tony Alonso, “A Not-So-Universal Language: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us about Music Styles in Worship,” Liturgy 30, no. 4 (2015), 53-60.

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