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Tuning in with your eyes, your motor cortex and your mind

Dr Diana Omigie


For many decades, researchers have used tools like interviews, questionnaires and diary studies to learn more about how concertgoers experience live classical music performances. What their data showed was quite clear: our experiences are dependent on just about everything, from how frequently we attend live performances, to whether we happened to know the specific pieces in that specific concert. However, does that mean that the goings-on in our brains share little, if anything, in common as we all sit and experience the exact same performance in the exact same concert hall? Or, are there neural mechanisms that are shared by all audience members, due to the unique multi-sensory experience that live music performances offer?

1. Using your eyes to follow the music

Seeing performers in the act of producing musical sound is perhaps the key thing that distinguishes live performance from other experiences of music. But how important is it, really, to actually be there? Being there won’t help us process the music better. Or will it…?

Experimental psychologists have shown that the presence of visual cues when we are listening to a melody allows us to follow the notes of said melody better, even when other arbitrary notes are being played alongside it. This finding has huge relevance for our experience of live music, as it suggests that being able to see performers in action helps us to better follow the musical ideas they are expressing.

But how, if at all, is the live experience different from watching a DVD or online posting of the performance? For an answer to this question, we could ask our primary motor cortex – the area of our brains involved in movement processing.

This area has been shown to be more active when we watch live bodily movements than when we watch recordings of similar movements. The researchers behind studies showing this fascinating effect came up with a couple of reasons why this might be. They argue, firstly, that people can’t help but be more interested in the visual properties of a 3D real hand than a 2D recorded one; and secondly, that people can’t help but be drawn to the unpredictability of live settings. They’re probably right. After all, in a live setting, anything really could happen – and especially in settings as intimate as the halls that tend to host chamber music, you wouldn’t have to squint too hard to catch it.


The motor cortex in the human brain

2. Mirroring the performers to augment emotional meaning.

In the 1980s, researchers in Italy made a huge discovery that caused a lot of excitement. They’d found neurons that fire, not only when we carry out movements, but also when we see others carry out those same movements. Fast forward to now, and many researchers believe that these neurons allow us to understand the meaning, intention and emotion behind other people’s actions. In the case of music listening, it has been suggested that these neurons help us to relate to music in a very special way.

Say you are listening – at home, eyes closed – to a piece that is particularly famous for the sadness it expresses. You can hear it is sad. Who couldn’t hear the sadness in those long, drawn-out notes? But now imagine all you are doing is watching performers play that same piece, without being able (for some reason) to hear the music. Could you still tell the emotion being expressed by that piece? According to some researchers, your mirror neurons allow you to recognise the performers’ slow movements as expressing sadness: because mirror neurons cause you to embody the actions of others, and because most people have internalised the fact that slow movements tend to accompany sadness. Watching music performances means that we are not only able to hear that the music is sad but also to feel the music is sad. Add to that the attention driven by the 3D and unpredictable nature of live performances, and your chances of resisting the emotionality of that adagio may be a little slimmer than if you were simply listening.

3. Using your frontal brain to take on an aesthetic attitude

Philosophers of aesthetics have long discussed the idea of the aesthetic attitude – by which they mean the point of view we tend to take when we evaluate an object in terms of its aesthetic value. You could look at a wine glass, pick it up and then take a swig from it. Or… you could look at the glass, contemplate how the light falls on its delicate edges, and notice how its golden contents adorn the light green tablecloth it is placed on. In the first, you’d be taking a pragmatic attitude – wine glasses are for swilling from. In the second scenario, you’d be adopting an aesthetic attitude; most things have aesthetic value if you take the time to really look at them.

Neuroscientific studies have shown that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is more active when listeners are instructed to perceive objects in an aesthetic rather than a pragmatic manner. Interestingly, this brain area is generally involved in all other forms of evaluative judgment. It would appear, therefore, that when we’ve decided to experience music as a work of art (as opposed to a background distraction or a tool for mood regulation), a distinct network of brain activity is in play. And, interestingly, it is the one we rustle up whenever it is time to decide on the value something has.

Sometimes, the aesthetic attitude creeps up on us. We may be walking purposely through the streets of our home city when we are suddenly brought to a halt by the haunting notes of a violin solo floating towards us from a street performer. Other times, we may be striding purposely through the doors of a beautiful church or concert hall, in the knowledge that from the moment we cross the doorstep, almost everything we look at or listen to will be filtered through our aesthetic frame of mind.

Whatever the scenario, the firing up of our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as we listen to music unfold may be the essential ingredient necessary for tipping us into having that most transcendent of all experiences – the one philosophers like to call the aesthetic experience.

4. Hearing outward, looking inward

Remember when you were 13? Back then, it was all about making sure that the right kids knew that you liked the same bands as they did. Sociologists emphasise the impact of music on identity formation in adolescents, but also often note that music can still play a powerful role in us ‘grown-ups’ decades and decades later. They point out how, for many, the ritual of a live music performance – an experience shared with like-minded others – may trigger acts of self-reflection, self-awareness and feelings of value affirmation. These scholars also stress how adult listeners may use music as an expression of social relatedness.

Neuroscientists have discovered the so-called default mode network to be a system of brain areas that is active when we are thinking about ourselves, thinking about others, remembering the past and planning into the future. They’ve shown it to be very much in full throttle during particularly moving experiences with our favourite works of visual art and music.

One might wonder whether this is because our favourite works, more than others, induce in us the state of mind where we think about musical sounds in relation to us, other listeners and the composers and performers that graced us with those sounds. In any case, unlike the majority of listening experiences, listening to music in a live concert affords a unique opportunity to reflect on all of the above – to enjoy the fact that the music heard was made by others, and also that, at that very moment, it is being enjoyed by a number of like-minded others (or perhaps not…).


Brain activity mapping of the default network mode

To conclude

Researchers are miles away from having brain scanners in concert halls, and even if they weren’t, the unique backgrounds concertgoers bring to the concert hall make understanding the live experience of music, in all its glory, a huge challenge for the field of neuroscience.

However, don’t let that hold you back. Next time you’re in a concert, take a moment to indulge in just a little bit of introspection about what you’re experiencing as you take in the sights and sounds of the performance. And once you’re out, find yourself the nearest neuroscientist and ask them if that experience has anything to do with the mirror neuron system, or perhaps the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.