A few months ago I wrote several posts about the importance of mirror neurons in the study and performance of music. Mirror neurons, as you recall, are the cells that fire both when we act and when we see someone else making the same action, and multiple studies have been conducted that specifically explore mirror neurons in musicians. But some scientists have called mirror neurons the most hyped concept in neuroscience. So are mirror neurons myth – or reality. And what difference does this controversy make to practicing musicians? Continue reading
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 audience 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
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.
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.
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 researcher 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
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.