What you see is what you hear: mirror neurons and music, part VI

Robert Schumann wrote in a review of a Franz Liszt concert in Dresden in 1840: “It is unlikely that any other artist, excepting only Paganini, has the power to lift, carry and deposit an Liszt_at_the_Pianoaudience in such high degree. . . In a matter of seconds we have been exposed to tenderness, daring, fragrance and madness. The instrument glows and sparkles under the hands of its master. . .It simply has to be heard – and seen. If Liszt were to play behind the scenes a considerable portion of poetry would be lost.” (Schumann on Music, trans. and ed. by Henry Pleasants) Continue reading

Listening as practice: mirror neurons and music, part V

I still remember Sue’s performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata on her senior recital.  I knew from hearing her earlier in a masterclass that her concept of the sonata was epic - distant machine gun fire in the opening repeated chords, various musical depictions of war in the first movement, death in the second, and angels in heaven in the third.

Beethoven Sonata, Op. 53

Beethoven Sonata, Op. 53

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Setting the stage for auditory mirror neurons: the auditory-motor loop

Ohad (Udi) Bar-David, cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, says that when he first began playing with Arab musician Simon Shaheen, it was difficult to play the microtones that are prevalent in Arab music. “But,” he says, “when you start hearing it, your fingers just take you there.”

Your fingers “just take you there” because of the strong auditory-motor connection in the brain.
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Suggestions needed

I need some input and who better to ask than my readers!!  I am in the process of interviewing and writing about musicians who, after suffering a brain injury, stroke, movement disorder, Suggestions boxphysical or emotional trauma, protracted length of time when they have been unable to practice, etc. etc., have made a recovery and returned to performing – and also musicians who have had a successful career in spite of a loss of one of their senses.  Leon Fleisher is a good example of someone who had a movement disorder in his right hand (focal dystonia), but eventually made a successful return to performing with both hands; Evelyn Glennie is profoundly hearing impaired, yet has had an astonishing career as a solo percussionist.  Continue reading

Mirror neurons and music, part IV: mirroring vs. mimicking

Mirror neurons are imitation neurons, but does how we imitate matter? Forty years ago, long before mirror neurons were known about, psychologists Seymour Wapner and Leonard Cirillo were interested in finding out at what age children develop an understanding of right from left in terms of their spatial development. They conducted a series of experiments in which children of different ages were asked by the mirror imageresearcher to “do as I do” as researcher and child were facing each other. Young children would imitate the adult researcher as though seeing him in a mirror. If the researcher raised his right hand, the child would raise his left.   Mirror imitation.  Continue reading

Mirror neurons and music, part III: imitation learning

Photograph:  Lewis Whyld/PA

Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

Pianists seem to be used as research subjects more often than any other musicians – perhaps because there are so many of us, both amateur and professional. I once met a well-known singer who, upon finding out that I was a pianist, remarked that pianists “are a dime a dozen.”  Not the most gracious comment when meeting someone.  On the other hand, our numbers guarantee a ready supply of subjects for neuroscience research, including research on mirror neurons.  And speaking of lots of pianists, I couldn’t resist this photo of fifty-two pianos with, I believe, two pianists at each piano, taken at Royal Festival Hall in London in May 2011 on a “massed piano day,”  held during a five-day mini festival, “Lang Lang Inspires.”  This photo illustrates an aspect of mirror neurons that I hope will become clear over the next few posts.

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