Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

12 APRIL, 2012

How to Listen to Music: A Vintage Guide to the 7 Essential Skills

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“Respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet.”

Music has a powerful grip on our emotional brain. It can breathe new life into seemingly lifeless minds. But if there is indeed no music instinct, music — not just its creation, but also its consumption — must be an acquired skill. How, then, do we “learn” music beyond merely understanding how it works? How do we “learn” to “listen” to music, something that seems so fundamental we take it for granted?

From the wonderful vintage book Music: Ways of Listening, originally published in 1982, comes this outline of the seven essential skills of perceptive listening, which author and composer Elliott Schwartz argues have been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out” and thus need to be actively developed. Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.

  1. Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
  2. Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame. How long is thirty seconds, for example? A given duration of clock-time will feel very different if contexts of activity and motion are changed.
  3. Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame. This facility may take a while to grow, but it eventually will. And once you discover that you can use your memory in this way, just as people discover that they really can swim or ski or ride a bicycle, life will never be the same.
  4. If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary. Music is basically a nonverbal art, and its unique events and effects are often too elusive for everyday words; we need special words to describe them, however inadequately.
  5. Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces. Composers and performers learn how to fill different time-frames in appropriate ways, using certain gestures and patterns for long works and others for brief ones. The listener must also learn to adjust to varying durations. It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.

    Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.

    […]

  6. Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.

    […]

  7. Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.


    There may appear to be a conflict between this suggestion and the previous one, in which listeners were urged to focus just on ‘what’s there.’ Ideally, it would be fascinating to hear a new piece of music with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears, as though we were Martians. But such objectivity doesn’t exist. All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been ‘trained’ by prejudices, personal experiences and memories. Some of these may get in the way of listening to music. Try to replace these with other items that might help focus upon the work, rather than individual feelings. Of course, the ‘work’ is much more than the sounds heard at any one sitting in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the memories, reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum. In acquiring information about any of these factors, we are simply broadening our total awareness of the work itself.

Music: Ways of Listening is to listening what Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is to reading — a timeless, yet remarkably timely meditation of a skill-intensive art we all too frequently mistake for a talent or, worse yet, a static pre-wired capacity.

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12 APRIL, 2012

The Brotherhood of Man: Vintage Animated Short Film Debunks the Myths of Racist Beliefs (1946)

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An animated adaptation of a WWII-era pamphlet making a scientific case against racism.

In 1946, Columbia University anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish published a pamphlet intended for American troops, entitled The Races of Mankind, which presented in simple language and cartoon illustrations a scientific case against racism. That same year, the pamphlet was adapted in the lovely animated short film The Brotherhood of Man, which makes a humorous but articulate case for equality despite physical dissimilarity and argues for extending to all people “an equal chance in life.”

How civilized a person is depends on the surroundings in which he grows up. The differences in the ways people behave are not inherited from their ancestors.

The pamphlet is now in the public domain and is thus available in its entirety, courtesy of The Internet Archive. It’s worth it if only for the wonderful illustrations.

UPDATE: Reader Jesse Jarnow (son of the great Al Jarnow) points out that The Brotherhood of Man is the work of legendary animator John Hubley, previously featured here.

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12 APRIL, 2012

John Cleese on the 5 Factors to Make Your Life More Creative

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“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

Much has been said about how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, and what we can do to optimize ourselves for it. In this excerpt from his fantastic 1991 lecture, John Cleese offers a recipe for creativity, delivered with his signature blend of cultural insight and comedic genius. Specifically, Cleese outlines “the 5 factors that you can arrange to make your lives more creative”:

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humor (“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)

The lecture is worth a watch in its entirety, below, if only to get a full grasp of Cleese’s model for creativity as the interplay of two modes of operating — open, where we take a wide-angle, abstract view of the problem and allow the mind to ponder possible solutions, and closed, where we zoom in on implementing a specific solution with narrow precision. Along the way, Cleese explores the traps and travails of the two modes and of letting their osmosis get out of balance.

A few more quotable nuggets of insight excerpted below the video.

Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.

Cleese goes on to caution against a trap in this duality, one particularly hazardous in politics:

To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.

This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they’ve become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode.

Cleese concludes with a beautiful articulation of the premise and promise of his recipe for creativity:

This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.

For a related treat, see Cleese’s reprise of the talk nearly two decades later at the 2009 Creativity World Forum.

Thanks, Simon

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