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Sunday, January 22, 2017

On the brain, unfortunately

A colleague of mine recently pointed out that the difference between psychologists and pedagogues is that psychologists care about the 'how' question whereas pedagogues are concerned about the 'why' and 'what' questions in education.

She immediately added that of course this was a gross exaggeration. Nevertheless, there seems to be a kind of truth in it to me. Let us accept, for the moment, that she is right, and that therefore one needs both psychologists and pedagogues to think about education. And let me then apply this difference to what some people consider to be the most important contribution nowadays to the discussion about music education: neuropsychology.

I witnessed in the past couple of months two presentations by two of the most admired speakers in music education circles using neuropsychological research on music to talk about the importance of music. Both are great speakers; both use great powerpoints with beautiful pictures and movies and many musical examples; both are capable to inspire their audience, yes, to leave them baffled and convinced of the importance of neuropsychological research in music for music education.

Let me focus on the last one I heard and on the two questions which psychologists are possibly less likely to answer: the 'what' and the 'why'.

Concerning the 'what', there was a certain carelessness in the way 'music' was defined. Without defining it, the speaker made us understand that music basically is one of two forms of behavior: playing an instrument (or singing), or listening. There was no clarity at many points whether the speaker was talking about playing an instrument or about listening when he talked about 'music'. To me it seemed the common-sense approach of the definition of music was implicitly taken over: music essentially is about the production and reception of musical works. There is nothing wrong to define music in that way, as long as you make clear that this is a very specific definition of what music is. Specific in the sense that it is the dominant societal definition in our society, basically going back on the 19th century western art music definition of music, and that this model is not shared by everyone always in everyday musical life, to put it mildly.

Another carelessness concerning the 'what' question was one of genre, and it is connected to the alinea above. Without saying so, and probably without meaning to do so, the speaker gave us the impression that it is okay to talk about 'music' but to refer mainly (nearing 'only', actually) to 'western classical music'. We heard Beethoven, saw Maria Joao Pires, and when music from outside the west came to the fore, we heard the Landfill Harmonic - a classical symphony orchestra made out of garbage on a dump in Paraguay (a perfect match with Venezuela's El Sistema, I would say - let's hope the Landfill Harmonic will not turn out to be equally cozy-in-surface-but-disquieting-in-backgrounds).

And when a rock drum groove was presented in order to talk about an experiment with babies, the groove was not presented as music but as music-brought-back-to-its-bare-skeleton. Ignoring the fact that millions of people consider precisely this kind of elementary grooves not as a faint shadow of music but simply as music. And reproducing the statements of our musical establishment that pop (or currently, electronic dance music, our newest enemy) is simple up to the point of being stupid.

The same counts for the ideas that expressed that music essentially is an art concerning a balance between chaos and order, and that its impact rests on a play with expectations and their fulfillment. Again, this should not be straightforward but questioned. Leonard Meyer's influential work on the 'meaning' of classical - indeed - music is propelled back into music education through the newest neuropsychological channels. But even if all music - not only western classical music - is somehow using this play between anticipation and fulfillment, and if we can show this on brain scans elucidating the 'oops'-factor of music, the question is still: does the fact that it exists also mean it is important? Does its existence mean that it is essential? And, on a different but related subject embraced in neuropsychology: does the fact that music is maybe very old, evolutionary, and even that it came into existence because of some evolutional advantage or other, really mean that this gives us a clue about the importance of music in present life, or in present education (hoping that education still is tied to life in some way)?

Which brings me to the ignored 'why'-question.

Why do we think nowadays that music education should be inspired by neuropsychology? Apart from the fact that it is hip, glossy, contains beautiful pictures of brains (which are actually not real pictures of real brains, but projections on models based on measurements in real brains operating in very un-ordinary settings), and gives us the impression that we are mastering nature now up to the point that scientists even are gaining a complete insight into the workings of that most fascinating organ of the human being?

I think there are no other reasons, actually. And I do think that it is important and fascinating to gain an insight in the important 'how'-question of 'how the human brain functions'. But I also do think that it is an illusion that the answers to the how-questions will also give us answers to the why- and the what-questions. Neuropsychological findings will in the long run not help us answering the question why music education is important; that music is evolutionary ancient and may have been evolutionary helpful and that it is an intricate art making lots of parts of the brain work together will in the end by the people-in-power be answered mainly with a simple 'So what?'. Believe you me.

And it will not help us in answering the question what we have to do in music education, in spite of the suggestion that the 'what' of music essentially consists of the playing of and listening to western art music. We will simply not get away with that kind of taken-for-granted answers reflecting mostly our own position in society rather than the idea that education is not about 'us', necessarily.

Which is why I once, long ago, said that I will not write about the brain in this blog. Which I will, after this short intermittence in my solemn pledge, continue not to do.


For the rest, I would like to invite you to read the first essay of Marilynne Robinson's 'The Givenness of Things'. It's a difficult piece - I get about 80% by now, I guess - but one of the lovely things is that she is critical about neuroscience (of which she draws a picture which may be a bit too simple and one-sided) not on the basis of findings from the humanities but on the basis of findings from the natural sciences; reproaching neuroscience that it simplifies the working of the brain to an extent incompatible with the complexities of e.g. string theory in physics. Recommended, if only because she is such a good writer.

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