The Ear Takes Notes: on Music and Memory

Music is a kind of magic. Occasionally it works like a time machine, transporting you back to special moments or places in your past. At times, music comforts you like a friend ―  at others, it can evoke within you a searing pain you thought you’d already forgotten. It can make your melancholy beautiful, mix pleasure with your pain, or pain with your pleasure.

A trained musician might take out a score and try to explain to you, bar by bar, why the musical structure of the piece in question is so ingenious. A neuroscientist might tell you that there is no magic there: the reason music can arouse feelings of euphoria or cravings is that it triggers the release of dopamine in the same regions of the brain that respond to pleasurable stimuli with more ‘tangible’ rewards.

While these explanations may account for the technical and physiological reasons for music’s allure, they might not satisfy us completely if we want to understand how a piece of music becomes meaningful to a listener ― to any listener, regardless of whether or not they have any formal music education or indeed any knowledge of what the neurones get up to in their brain.

With songs, lyrics help us in the meaning-making, although there is certainly more to the emotional response triggered by songs than just words: you may love a song the lyrics of which, if you saw them merely written down, might seem naive and clichéd. And then there is the vast universe of instrumental music ― how does one navigate those melodies, modulations, tonalities, rhythms and tempos? Have you ever sat in a symphony concert, for example, and felt that while you are enjoying the music, you cannot say you understand it?

Because music is not referential in the same way as most other art forms, deciphering meanings in music may seem like a daunting task. In a representational painting or a prose text the meaning is somewhat more immediately available, whereas with music repetition and time play a key role in making the work accessible. One of the key differences between listening to music and, say, reading a novel or looking at a painting is precisely the time-bound quality of the experience. If you listen to a recording of a piece, no matter how complex, over and over, eventually you start recognising melodies, themes and motifs, and anticipating them.

Don’t get me wrong, there is such a thing as intimidating music. A few years ago, the world-class pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim gave a concert series in Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic. His programme included Beethoven’s much loved and widely known piano concertos, but also famously difficult atonal (that is, not written in any key or mode) works by Arnold Schoenberg. Knowing Schoenberg to be far less familiar to his audience, the Maestro did something fantastically helpful: before the Schoenberg symphony, he introduced it to the audience with the orchestra playing excerpts from the piece. In the first part, you will hear this motif. In the second movement, listen out for this melody, and so forth. Finally, before commencing the symphony in its entirety, Barenboim turned to his audience with a big smile on his face. “The ear,” he said, “is the most intelligent of human organs — because it remembers.”

There is, of course, the specialised, theoretical and technical understanding of music, which is exactly what allows musicians to analyse a piece and assemble a performance, but the point Barenboim was making was delightfully egalitarian: you do not need to possess some mysterious aptitude or specialist skill to get acquainted with a piece of music ― you only need to listen to it enough times.

The first time we hear a piece, we only have our nebulous and fragmentary impressions, which nevertheless play a crucial role in the gradual unfolding of the work. This phenomenon was described masterfully by the French writer Marcel Proust in his In Search of Lost Time: “Often one hears nothing,” his Narrator remarks, “when one listens for the first time to a piece of music that is at all complicated. The impression is not the same the first time around, otherwise you could not claim to understand a piece any better the second, the third and the tenth time you listen to it.” A complex musical work fully opens itself to us through re-encounters — that is to say, in time. 

“Probably what is wanting the first time,” Proust’s Narrator concludes, in an equally egalitarian manner, “is not comprehension but memory.”

As we listen to music, there is always more at play than just the notes, pure sound and abstract structure; they are accompanied by the highly personal impressions and associations through which music leaves traces in our memory. Our other organs remember too, of course, but ears, it seems, remember in a very specific way. Now, in the time of PET- and fMRI-scans, there is science to back this up. A study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2011 showed that anticipation plays a key role in musical pleasure: through brain scans, the researchers were able to show that just before the emotional climatic moment in a piece of music, dopamine was released in an anatomical pathway separate from the one associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our brain takes this abstract reward as seriously as it would a more obvious one. Being able to anticipate your favourite part of a piece can elate you.

The next time you attend a concert with an unfamiliar piece in the programme, give it a listen beforehand. There will be a difference in your experience, I promise, because your ear will have taken notes.

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