A Neuroscientist and a Musician Explore Perceptions of Beauty

A Neuroscientist and a Musician Explore Perceptions of Beauty

Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist who studies human perception and how it relates to the arts, joins composer and musician Oded Lev-Ari, who has produced records for the likes of jazz musicians Anat Cohen and Marty Ehrlich, in a conversation on May 24 for National Sawdust+, an events series at the nonprofit arts venue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The evening will feature cellist Ani Kalayjian and pianist Philip Fisher. ALL ARTS spoke with Lotto and Lev-Ari via email about our perceptions of “happy” and “sad” music, the role music plays in society and whether there is a right way to experience music.

What sparked your interest to study perception?

Beau Lotto: Perception underpins everything it is to be human. So understanding why we see what we do tells us not only how the brain works, but also what it means to be human.

What is the benefit to understanding perceptions of beauty?

BL: In this instance, an understanding of beauty creates the possibility of openness.

Oded Lev-Ari: Understanding the role perception plays in our experience of beauty can open the possibility of seeing more beauty.

Why did you decide to explore the way we experience sound for the NS+ event?

OL: As a composer, improviser and performer, I’ve always seen the exploration of how we experience sound as part of my job description. I jumped at the opportunity to bring other disciplines and scientific research into the mix. Doing it in front of an audience is even more exciting.

Talk to me about “exploring imperfection.” What does that mean?

BL: That is the question! In a world that increasingly strives for perfection, and fails, the idea that beauty is not to be found in perfection but in imperfection creates possibility that wasn’t previously realized. But what is it about imperfection that matters? Are all imperfections the same?

OL: We now have the tools to create theoretically perfect performances; all notes can be snapped to a time grid, all pitches can be adjusted to be exactly “in tune,” but doing so often comes at the expense of the performance’s emotional impact. What is it about “imperfections” that makes the music come alive to us?

In understanding our likes and dislikes, does that bring us closer to understanding each other? How so?

BL: Yes. In order to respect another’s humanity it is necessary to better understand and accept the source of one’s own humanity.

OL: I think that by coming into any interaction — musical, interpersonal, diplomatic — with the knowledge that our understanding of the world is shaped by our personal and ancestral history can lead to a more open exchange of ideas.

Talk to me about how we have come to perceive “sad” music as sad, “happy” music as happy, etc. What role does our history play in that perception?

OL: That’s a huge question and I don’t think there is a single satisfactory answer. I believe our association of sound with emotion in general, and sadness and happiness in particular, starts with vocalization.

There’s research showing that certain intervals are used more prominently than others in our speech. I believe music takes these general, broad preferences and refines them, distills them into specific intervals and musical keys. So the sense of a “tragic” key, or of minor keys being “sad” has nothing to do with the frequency itself, and everything to do with our biology, our history as a species and years of cultural reinforcement.

What role does music play in our society?

BL: Music is an expression of our society, but it’s also a creator of it. Which means through music we have the possibility of becoming active participants in the process of “making sense” of the world.

OL: So many roles! My favorite one is that of a unifier. Experiencing live music in a group is a way to feel your humanity and the humanity of those surrounding you.

Is there a right way to experience music?

BL: Yes. The right way is the way that makes sense to the listener and creator. Like most things, “open listening” — i.e. listening with the awareness of one’s own biases — creates the possibility of expansion.

OL: Beau showed me that when we are unsure of what is going to happen next, when we experience uncertainty, our brain is frantically trying to make meaning of its surroundings. I wish all music could be experienced this way — open and ready to experience anything.

Does music have a place in the future of technology?

BL: The next greatest innovation will not be a technology, but a way of being. And it’s this way of being that will enable innovation in technology. Many seem to have forgotten that our brains evolved in a body and body in our world. We are embodied. The future is the experience of the world around us. For instance, I measure the quality of a VR, not by how I feel when put it on, but how I feel when I take it off! Does it improve what I see in the world around me?

OL: Yes! In fact, some companies are actively working on ways for computers to compose and perform. So there absolutely is a future — I hope it is a future of interaction rather than replacement.

What piece of music do you find beautiful?

BL: Music that is played imperfectly, and is therefore perceived to be “alive” by the brain.

OL: Any piece that expresses motion and emotion.

What piece of music do you find just awful?

BL: Music that is played perfectly and is therefore perceived to be “dead”

OL: Anything synthetic.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Top Image: Courtesy of Lazy Chief