Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sound Is Touch At A Distance

This post is prompted by a coincidence: A NPR program from April 21, 2006 was replayed on KERA in Dallas a few days ago. Then yesterday Laura Vivanco made a comment about Fantasia on my blog.

I love Radio Lab, which has now wrapped up its fourth season on NPR. The show is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. The two men select a subject--usually something from the world of science or philosophy--to discuss during each episode.

Here is the description of the program I'm referencing:
What is music? How does it work? Why does it move us? . . . In this hour, we examine the line between language and music, how the brain processes sound, and we . . . re-imagine the disastrous 1913 debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring…through the lens of modern neurology.
The episode interested me because the Rite of Spring is one of two classical music pieces that frightened me as a child. I first heard it when I was about five years old and an aunt took me to see the re-release of Disney's Fantasia in New York.

I doubt that my aunt had seen Fantasia previously and suspect she thought it was just another Disney animated film. That first experience haunted me for years, returning again and again in frightening nightmares. I was in college before I saw the film again, including the second half with Laura's Dance of the Hours starring the hippos in tutus.

I vaguely recall watching the orchestra play Bach during the opening of the film, but I don't remember the animated segment for the Nutcracker Suite at all. I do recollect The Sorcerer's Apprentice because, like most children, I loved Mickey Mouse.

But it was the fourth selection--twenty-plus minutes of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring--that had the strongest impact on my five-year-old self.

If you aren't familiar with Fantasia, the Rite of Spring section presents a natural history of the Earth from its creation through the age of the dinosaurs to their eventual extinction. It scared the socks off me.

I started to get frightened about three minutes in when the musical score became aggressive and the volcanos began to erupt. See the 7:31 minute segment of the Genesis portion of the film here.

I managed to stay in my seat through the introduction of evolution. The amoebas didn't register on me, but I do remember the relief I felt when I recognized the Brontosaurus and the Triceratops. Like most children, I loved dinosaurs and could identify the well-known species. You can watch the 8:57 minute segment that introduces the dinosaurs here.

Stravinsky provides musical foreshadowing to increase the unease as the gentle herbivorous giants raise their heads to look around fearfully. The heralding of the trumpet announces the violent arrival of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The T Rex proceeds to fight to the death with a giant Stegosaurus.

By the end of that ferocious battle, I was in my aunt's lap.

The final five minutes of the Rite of Spring segment (which you can watch here) was equally as frightening. Stravinsky wrote his ominous, intense music to tell the story of a pagan ritual that ends in the sacrifice of a virgin. The Disney film opted to show a terrible drought that killed off all the dinosaurs. Their extinction was followed by earthquakes and floods.

By the time intermission arrived, I'd had all of Fantasia I could stand. My aunt and I left the theater, and she took me down the block to the Woolworth's lunch counter where we had grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate malts.

The Radio Lab interview last Sunday interested me because it explored the question of why music makes us feel so strongly. The program is an hour long, but it was the second half that really energized me.

Robert Krulwich begins that segment by explaining how sound touches your brain. Essentially sound is waves of vibrating air. It enters your ear, vibrates your eardrum, triggering the small bones there. Those bones disturb the fluid, which in turn rocks the hair cells. Those cells bend, setting off charged molecules and creating electricity. The electricity forms a pattern in your brain.
If the sound is orderly, regular and rhythmic, we like it. If the sound is disorderly and unexpected, we feel uncomfortable. One of the Radio Lab guests describes it: "Sound is touch at a distance."

The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913 in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. To accompany Stravinsky's music, Nijinsky choreographed a pagan dance as different from classical ballet as the score was different from classical music.

Wikipedia describes what happened at that premiere:
The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon's opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky himself was so upset on account of its reception that he fled the theater in mid-scene, reportedly crying.
Krulwich asks, "The question is why? Why so much feeling about a piece of music?" Why the uproar?

That riot has been much talked about and much written about, but until recently no one tried to explain it through brain chemistry. Scientists are just beginning to figure out what happens when we hear music we've never heard before, especially dissonant sounds.

There are groups of neurons in the auditory cortex whose sole job is to dissect a new noise, find a pattern in it, and disentangle dissonant sounds. Perhaps that audience failed to make sense out of the Rite of Spring. If so, maybe the neurons squirted out too much dopamine, and the people went mad.

The following March, the Rite of Spring was performed again in the same theater, but as a piece of music, not as a ballet. Because they were forewarned, this new audience listened carefully, found the patterns hidden in the musical score and enjoyed the experience. Stravinsky was hailed as a genius.

The Radio Lab hosts interviewed Jonah Lehrer, who has written a book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Lehrer says:
When a pattern of noises is heard repeatedly, the brain memorizes that pattern. Feedback from higher-up brain regions reorganizes the auditory cortex, which makes it easier to hear the pattern in the future. This learning is largely the handiwork of dopamine...But what orders the corticofugal feedback? Who is in charge of our sensations? The answer is experience. While human nature largely determines how we hear the notes, it is nurture that lets us hear the music. From the three-minute pop song to the five-hour Wagner opera, the creations of our culture teach us to expect certain musical patterns, which over time are wired into our brain.

So we hear something new, our brain organizes it, and our brain releases dopamine, which "is the chemical source of our most intense emotions." In other words . . . something new leads to a high level of Captivation and Emotional Resonance, i.e., pleasure and satisfaction. So, Context gets us into the theatre and gives us a headstart on the patterns we might encounter, and then when we are surprised we get great pleasure from the dopamine release that occurs when we identify the new pattern.
I have season tickets to the Dallas Symphony. Over the years, I've probably heard the Rite of Spring performed half a dozen times. I no longer hear the dissonance; the score is familiar and satisfying.

Is it maturity? Is it experience? Is it dopamine?

Listen to the Radio Lab program here and decide for yourself. You can scroll forward to 27:53 and listen to the thirteen minutes that I've referenced in this post.

1 comment:

Laura Vivanco said...

I don't remember seeing the Stravinsky bit at all. Maybe they left it out at the cinema I was taken to. I do remember being scared during The Sorcerer's Apprentice when everything got out of control.