Monday, May 18, 2015

Can a song change your life?

Continuing last week's theme of why humans developed music, this week I want to highlight a recent post from NPR Music's feature The Good Listener, where Stephan Thompson answers the question: "Can a song really save your life?" Here's the original column.

While many of the comments and responses submitted were about people literally being saved by music, many others were about people allowing music to change their lives. NPR Music's All Songs Considered did a follow-up podcast on The Good Listener post and much of the discussion was about these life changes. Here is the follow-up podcast (9 minutes).

I think my favorite part of the podcast is this quote by Stephen Thompson: "Songs are windows into the perspectives of other people...they're windows into other ways of thinking and that can have a very positive impact on your judgement." In other words, because music allows strong emotions to be attached to words, all packaged in patterns made to be attractive to ears and memorable to brains, songs can really get our attention and cause us to think deeply about concepts. As songs are often written from a first-person perspective, these concepts can easily be directly related to ourselves, allowing introspection that may change our behaviors. If we let them, songs can change our perspective, perhaps more easily than other forms of communication.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Why do humans make music? Some theories.

There’s a new theory for why humans make music, at least from the point of view of evolution. In this article, physics and cognition researcher Leonid Perlovsky discusses how he thinks that music helps humans smooth out cognitive dissonance. Two studies are given as examples: in one, children are asked to not play with their second favorite toy and researchers found that the children devalued the toy; however, when the same experiment was performed with music playing, “the toy retained its original value” (having not read the study, I’m not sure how they determined this). The second study asked 15-year-olds to take a multiple choice test and then rate the questions by difficulty; the researchers found that the students took longer on the harder questions (and therefore answered more correctly) when Mozart was playing than with no music.

Now, I think that coming to such a broad conclusion from these two small studies is premature. Neither of these studies has even generalized its own findings. Does the “retaining value” work with other things besides toys? What about other ages? Do student still do better on the hard questions if rock music is being played instead of Mozart? I don’t think humans developed Mozart’s music to do better on hard tests. What if the teenagers were just distracted enough by the music that it was less painful to work on questions, instead of helping them work out hard problems, and music is just a good universal distraction instead of “unifying the world into a whole” as Perlovsky hyperbolizes?

No, this article really should have headlined neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who is only mentioned briefly at the end. Levitin did a “meta-analyses of more than 400 neurochemical studies and found that listening to music had a more measurable effect on people's anxiety and cortisol levels than did anti-anxiety drugs…and had a profound effect on social cohesion.” Those sound like some generalizable results. The calming influence and becoming part of a group seem like important reasons why human would develop
music. I’m certainly open to more good reasons, but I don’t think Perlovsky really makes his grand case here with only two small studies. 

If you want to read more about music and the brain, take a look at Levintin’s book This is Your Brain on Music (2006).

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Krugman, Benjamin, and the live performance of music

How much do performers earn from this, anyways? From Flikr.

Someone a little unexpected showed up at the South by Southwest music festival a few weeks ago: economist Paul Krugman. He took part in a panel about celebrity economy in music. You can read a recap here.

The part that stuck out to me was this quote by Krugman: “Things have changed a lot less for the musicians, for the artists, than you might think…[Even in the peak of CD sales in the ’90s] artists earned about 7 times as much from live performance…It’s always been really about the live performances as far as the artist is concerned. There is really no reason to think that’s going to change.”

This statistic, that even in peak CD-sales times, artists still earned many times more in live performance than from recordings, might be an eye-opener. For many people, the recording is the final product. Many people judge musicians and music from the recording. The music industry spends a lot of time tracking and advertising the top-selling recordings. For the much of the industry (be it streaming services or recording labels) selling records or access to the records is how they make money. But outside of a few exceptional artists, the recording only serves mostly as an advertisement for the musicians, at least
in regard to making money

Krugman’s statistic goes hand in hand with Walter Benjamin’s essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). Basically, Benjamin’s argument is that as cheap reproductions of art flourish, what becomes valuable is the original or the authentic. In the case of music, where the original is often considered to be the cheaply-reproducible recording, live performance by the musicians becomes the sought-after authentic substitute. So while the music industry struggles to profit from the artists in this new age of even cheaper and more-widely available mechanical reproduction, the sad lot of the artist hasn’t really changed much. 

The moral of the story is…if you are going to form a band nowadays, make sure you can play live and you don’t mind performing and touring all of the time. Which really isn’t new.