Tuesday, 16 October 2007

I'm Sorry

"I think it's time I realised get down on my knees and apologise..." (Hothouse Flowers)

Dear friends, casual acquaintances, people who've been misdirected here by Google - I need to unburden myself of a tremendous feeling of guilt, that I've wronged and falsely maligned a large group of innocent people on a regular basis over the years, and it's time now to stand up and say both "I'm sorry", and confess that "I was wrong" to them. I'll also offer a brief apology to anyone who was expecting this post to appear in its regular Sunday late-night slot (must be a jazz gig), and was even the slightest bit put out when it failed to emerge. There is a very good reason for the delay, however - I was trying my best to assimilate a pile of neurological data relating to brain function and musical perception, and when you take into account my limited spare time, and that my only "science" qualification is a Scottish 'Higher'-grade exam from 1985 (I got a "B", in case anyone was insomniac enough to be wondering), then it was always going to be a bit of a struggle.

I will not, though, be apologising to the aforementioned Google searchers who took the plunge and landed on this page, only to head straight back in disgust when it failed to live up to their expectations. I do understand that if you're a U2 fan, then finding only a derogatory reference to Adam Clayton's bass-playing (in)abilities is never going to be ideal, but if you will go looking for an "amphetamine enema", 'unknown' from Germantown, Tennessee, then you can't expect much in the way of sympathy, now can you?

So whom have I wronged so wilfully? Well, you know all those people who, when asked what music they're into, reply with "Anything that's in the charts", or something along those lines? That's the ones. I've met so many of them, and they used to annoy me no end - how could someone be so incredibly indifferent towards something as important as music? How could they not (apparently) differentiate between genres/artists - didn't they
care??? I think that was the greatest crime in my book - not caring enough. Being apathetic in their choice of music, happily consuming whatever was on the Radio 1 playlist at the time. In my defence, let's not forget that for a 30-year old British adult, that means an approximately equal endorsement of:

Aqua, Britney, Beyoncé, Manic Street Preachers, Whigfield, "24.47 Pence" or "€0.35" as "50 Cent" is known over here (at current exchange rates), Oasis, Right Said Fred, Eminem, Take That, Mr. Blobby, Simply Red, Spice Girls, Peter Andre, Bob the Builder, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Razorlight, The Backstreet Boys, Westlife, George Michael, Celine Dion, Robbie Williams, U2, Boyzone, Queen, Diddy/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Puff the Magic Diddy/Right Diddy, Madonna, Craig David, UB40, Pink, Robson & Jerome, Sugababes, Elton John, Justin "bumfluff" Timberlake, Nelly, Sting, Crazy Frog, Busted, My Chemical Romance...etc,etc,etc.

That way, indeed, madness lies.

There had to be some sort of explanation. A lot of it, I used to think, could be ascribed to folk being "tone-deaf", or thereabouts. After all, in many surveys, the proportion of the general public who self-identify as "tone-deaf" runs at about 1 in 7, or 14.3% (give or take) - except they're almost all wrong (whodathunkit?). They're mostly just lousy singers who've had little or no training. It turns out that the real figure lies in the 3-4% range, and that true "amusia" has a significant hereditary component - "In amusic families, 39% of first-degree relatives have the same cognitive disorder, whereas only 3% have it in the control families." (1) Plus these poor "amusic" folks seem to have "a reduction in white matter concentration in the right inferior frontal gyrus" (Dr. Isabelle Peretz, Université de Montréal). In other words, a bit of their brain is, well, "missing". Ouch. And great sympathy. But not, apparently, a reason for "music apathy".

That left me a little mystified. So I decided to see what the latest fMRI research techniques could turn up...which was quite a lot, and took a great deal of sifting through...

Now, most of us are probably aware of the basic "popular" science regarding music and the brain, even if a lot of it comes at us from less-than-objective sources ("Music lessons make your kids smarter, 29% better at maths, 400% less likely to smoke pot, and they will never steal your car and cross the state line whilst intoxicated on home-made vodka and engaging in oral sex", says Head of Music School". That sort of thing). Then there are the plethora of studies that say trained musicians respond to music with greater left-brain activity than non-musicians - e.g. when it comes to picking-up subtle performance cues in jazz, "we demonstrate that pre-attentive brain responses recorded with magnetoencephalography to rhythmic incongruence are left-lateralized in expert jazz musicians and right-lateralized in musically inept non-musicians." (2) - and that "musical expertise leads to perceptual processes that are predominantly based on local strategies." (3) We use the areas relating to language far more, apparently. But that's not all...for musos, it gets better:

"Notably, professional musicians showed a significant (greater than 100%) increase in MEG activity within primary auditory cortex compared to nonmusicians, which was found to correlate with increased (130%) volumetric measurements of gray matter within Heschl's gyrus in musicians compared to nonmusicians." (4)

So, if you're a pro, you've going to have one really big gyrus (anyone using this as part of a chat-up line does so entirely at their own risk).

Which is, all in all, why it's been unfair of me to criticise the musically apathetic the way I've always done. Given the musical limitations of most of the general public's brains that research has exposed, it's clear that I've been indulging in what amounts to a form of 'mocking the afflicted', (and that Simon Cowell's ownership of the Universe is, alas, inevitable). So a heartfelt "I'm sorry" to all the chart-hit-lovers out there. Except for Oasis fans, of course. Neurological underdevelopment or not, there's no excuse for wallowing in ignorance.

1 - The Genetics of Congenital Amusia (Tone Deafness): A Family-Aggregation Study. The American Journal of Human Genetics, volume 81 (2007), pages 582–588

2 - Pre-attentive neuronal responses to incongruent rhythm are left-lateralized in musicians. NeuroImage Volume 24, Issue 2, 15 January 2005, Pages 560-564

3 - Receptive amusia: evidence for cross-hemispheric neural networks underlying music processing strategies. Brain, Vol. 123, No. 3, 546-559, March 2000

4 - Structural and Functional Neural Correlates of Music Perception, C. Limb, Anatomical Record Part 288A:435–446, 2006. (This is a great summary paper, can be downloaded as a PDF, and has some cool pictures of brain scans)

N.B. This blog posting is a Wikipedia-based-research-free zone, and hence can be regarded as at least slightly reliable. It is definitely not the product of:
a) several rival interest groups' politicking;
b) a single grandiose 'authority' ignoring the evidence in order to promote their latest personal controversy; or
c) some drunk compsci students, having failed to attract any female company for the 117th weekend in a row, indulging in a vindictive late-night "editing" session.

The jokes, however, are entirely mine - and for that, I can only apologise.


Martin Lennon said...


This blog will, regardless of it's intent, become legendary. I sit in awe. That's SOME research!!! Those are SOME words I have no concept of the meaning of!!! That's SOME humour you got there...!!!


So - where exactly does 'soul' figure in all this?


"How YOU doin'... wanna see my huge gyrus?" Yeah... that sounds like SOME line...

Andy Gilmour said...

Many thanks for the kind comments, my dear Mr. Lennon, but I always thought that in order to become legendary, something actually had to become reasonably well-known....or perhaps read by more than, oooh, 5 people? :-)

"Soul" is probably what we do with music after we've initially "heard" it...??? errrr????

Can you sense I have no idea & I'm floundering? :-)

Cheers dude!