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With Music, Ignorance May Be Bliss

• March 25, 2010 • 12:38 PM

Put down those program notes: New research suggests describing a piece of classical music may diminish the pleasure of listening.

Last month, we reported that providing contextual information may diminish viewers’ enjoyment of modern art. A commenter suggested that dynamic may apply to music as well, noting that a class he took on the music of Aaron Copland “lessened my appreciation of the composer’s work.”

A study just published in the journal Psychology of Music suggests his experience was far from unique. It finds that reading a what-to-listen-for guide before hearing a piece of music seems to make the actual aesthetic experience less pleasurable.

“Descriptions may interfere with the directness and intimacy with which listeners are able to experience a work,” writes Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the University of Arkansas. “It may distance listeners, or place them at a remove — as if they were listening through someone else’s ear.”

Margulis, whose research on musicians’ brains was described on Miller-McCune.com in 2008, selected 24 excerpts from Beethoven string quartets. For each of these 45-second snatches of music, she wrote two brief descriptions: One labeled “dramatic” (“The opening evokes a deeply felt hymn”), the other “structural” (“This piece begins with a series of slow, sustained chords”).

The 16 non-musicians who participated in the experiment listened to all 24 excerpts. For eight of the pieces, they first read the dramatic description of what it was they were about to hear. For another eight, they read the structural description. The remaining eight were presented without any preparation. Afterward, the participants rated their enjoyment of each excerpt.

“Excerpts without descriptions were enjoyed more than excerpts with them,” Margulis writes. “Dramatic descriptions seemed to reduce enjoyment more than structural descriptions, but this effect did not rise to significance.”

Is it possible the test participants were simply annoyed by the instruction to read the description, which influenced how they perceived the piece? Possibly, but a follow-up experiment determined any such effect did not account for the difference in enjoyment levels.

So what does explain it?

“Music has been associated with the pleasure of ‘flow,’ a state that may be harder to achieve when conceptual knowledge intervenes,” Margulis notes. “Listeners are less likely to let the music wash over them if they have just read a description.

“When people without extensive formal training listen to music in terms of verbal descriptions, they may work so hard at connecting the notes into label-able phenomena that they lose the ability … to hear the subtle interconnections among the sounds. These interconnections may be fundamental to music enjoyment.”

So should program notes and pre-concert lectures be abandoned? Not necessarily, says Margulis, who cautions her study is preliminary and “raises more questions than it answers.”

“It is plausible,” she writes, “that program notes with other types of information — composer background, for example — may enhance enjoyment in a way that descriptive notes appear not to.” (This is the approach of many classical music stations, including KUSC Los Angeles, where announcers often discuss the circumstances of a work’s composition but seldom address specifics of structure.) She adds that “even if descriptive notes don’t increase enjoyment in the short term, they might over the longer term.”

Then again, perhaps our entire impulse to translate music into words is misguided. Composer and musical theorist Leonard Meyer implied as much when he wrote (in a passage Margulis includes in her paper): “Listening to music intelligently is more like knowing how to ride a bicycle than knowing why a bicycle is ridable.”

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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