An intuitive improvising musician gives a serious look at neuroscience… really?
“The Social Principle: human beings create a uniquely human social space when their nervous systems are coupled through interactional synchrony.” – William L. Benzon
When I was in high school, there was a period when I read supernatural horror literature. I came upon a novel by Colin Wilson titled “The Mind Parasites.” Wilson was best known for his existentialist work “The Outsider,” which led me to this novel. It was a creepy book, well suited to its genre. I forget the exact storyline, but basic idea touched on Wilson’s idea that human beings were essentially minds and that our bodies were essentially vessels for those minds, and they would eventually become superfluous. Needless to say, what teenager could believe that?
Wilson ceased to be on my mind for many years, until this summer, when I embarked upon a survey of the literature about neuroscience. This was part of my ongoing exploration of collective musical improvisation. Since I tend to favoring intuition, I’m naturally suspect of studies that quantify musical or other sensory experience and expression. On the other hand, I have a history of engagement with science: I was very interested in organic chemistry as a teenager, nearly double majoring in it in college, and I continue to read a literature about astrophysics. I read scientific books in the same way that some people read novels.
I discovered that research to date about the brain and musical perception remains rather primitive. Often the focus is on idiosyncratic case studies and the search to identify areas of the brain that become active in the course of music making. As most musicians will confirm, the studies generally show musical perception to be lacking any single neurological center. Why would there be a “musical center” in a brain when so many of our ways of perceiving, being, and acting overlap?
As I’ve written in previous blog essays, while some theorize that music making originates as a mental activity, my own experience is deeply embodied. Some of my essays have sought to connect this idea to other perceptual and expressive modes of being.
Benzon, in his 2001 book Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, offers helpful connective tissue between these ideas. He begins with the brain: “the central nervous system operates in two environments, the external world and the internal milieu, and it regulates the relationship between the external world and the interior milieu on behalf of that milieu… as a vehicle for expressing emotion, the body presents the inner experience of individuals both to the external world and to higher brain centers.” So far, this is a view that we are each, at our core, a network of neural structures. For Benzon, human action externalizes information that is generated by our neural structures – beginning with what it gleans from internal sources and from our sensing of the outside world.
This would seem like a computing model in which the CPU collects, processes, and outputs information. My own view is less mechanistic, less data-driven, but if internal sources include embodied experience, then maybe we are not so far apart. In fact, Benzon believes that they do. He cites the work of Antonio Damasio, whose “theory of emotion includes assessment of the body state through direct sensing of the internal milieu and through somaesthetic and kinesthetic sensing of one’s muscles and joints.” Our emotional connections with other people are related, according to Damasio, with pairing on two simultaneous levels. These include what we perceive within our bodies and via the “subcortical and cortical systems within individuals.” The two are linked.
Damasio views music and dance as core social bonding activities that exemplify these somatic and neurological linkages. “This is the arena where music and dance forge a group of individuals into a community sharing a common culture–a culture that is, first of all, a means of sharing and coordinating emotions.” [Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, 1994] Each individual’s neural processing becomes synchronized with that of another person, with the evolutionary purpose being the social survival of the group. For Benzon, if we lacked this “capacity for interactional synchrony… many if not most cues about the inner state of others are invisible.” Benzon concludes: “Musicking, by its use of neural structures at all levels in the brain, facilitates interactional coupling.” Music is thus one of the ways we become emotionally transparent and accessible to other people.
Where Benzon’s thinking becomes most interesting for musicians (beyond his definition of music as a core and essential human activity, not the most popular idea these days!) is how the process of interaction unfolds. He suggests that each musician’s nervous system engages in a “reorganizational activity” that “is responsive to the sound made by each and every person in the musicking group. I am attuning my motor and emotive system to the sound that is the joint activity of this group, and each person is in turn doing the same thing. Each player, merely by being a conscious musician, is making minute adjustments to his or her nervous system in response to the sounds that all are creating.”
What Benzon offers is a neurological conception of collective music making. What this means for collective improvisers is that we each constantly change in response to the sounds we perceive from one another (and from the entire group). Since we sense our physical bodies and, by extension, the musical sounds we make, as simultaneously internal to us and part of the external world – it becomes difficult to separate the individual from the collective. Maybe this is what we mean when we speak of moments within collective improvisation that seem like “group mind.”
In The Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles, I describe a 1967 Paris performance of Wayne Shorter’s tune “Masqualero” by the Davis band of the 1960s. I consider the role of each individual musician to this spontaneously unfolding collective two minutes of music. I observe: “This reconfiguration of mood, texture, and intensity occurs again and again throughout the performance. It happens next at the start of a Wayne Shorter solo that begins with a beautiful yet simple figure, juxtaposed with an equally lovely Hancock accompaniment. Again, it is difficult to tell who initiates the change. Thirty seconds into his solo, Shorter reaches into a higher register to play a variant of his starting motif, then descends slowly. Before we know it, another moment of musical grace unfolds, beginning with a spontaneous, new Shorter melody, maybe a recasting of the previous one, joined by Hancock. Williams and Carter are immediately present to capture the subtle shift in mood. For most of the solo, Williams has played a repeated-stroke snare figure, akin to a very gentle military march. With only a slight shift in volume and intensity, the same material has been transformed into a perfect complement for the new emotional tone.”
From Benzon’s perspective, this might be a useful example of how musicians can interlock but never exactly understand the choices they are making. I don’t mean that “this” chord or “that” note or beat isn’t a logical response to something that was just played. But why “this” chord rather than an endless array of other possibilities? And if “that” note was chosen intuitively, or as a somatic response projected upon a musical instrument, can we speak of it as the product of analytical decision making? In a way yes, since a skilled and experienced musician is well aware, intellectually and somatically, of some of the possibilities. But a spontaneous action that happens too fast for conscious thought, one that is neither simply reflexive or rehearsed, cannot be explained quite so rationally. It is deeper than that. Benzon (and Damasio’s) idea that we adjust our nervous systems in response to internal sensations and those we receive from musical partners, seems like a pretty fascinating suggestion to me.