20 January 2008

This Is Your Brain on Music (and Catechesis)

I picked up a great book at the airport in New York on my homeward trek from speaking on Paul Gerhardt this past October. The book is not that long; nor is it a difficult read, although it does require some concentration and reflection. That I'm still working my way through it three months later is due only to the fact that my life has been crazy and chaotic in the meantime. It's actually a fascinating book, and well-written, and I highly recommend it: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin (Plume, 2007).

I've been intrigued by music for as long as I can remember, and I have often puzzled over its power and mystery. I find it compelling, both emotionally and theologically; both as a medium of expression and as a topic of conversation. Especially as I have delved deeper into the significance of hymnody, and as I have contemplated the role of music in the liturgy, I have been increasingly interested in the nature and characteristics of music. In reading Robin Leaver's recent book on Luther's understanding and use of music, I have found it refreshing and helpful to consider music as part of God's good creation and one of His good gifts. That view prompts a positive, constructive and salutary approach to the topic. It also coincides with an opinion I have long held, though I haven't had the knowledge or wherewithal to demonstrate or argue it, that music has objective aspects and qualities that can be measured and evaluated, as to whether they are more or less in harmony with the Word of God.

This Is Your Brain on Music is just the sort of thing that I've been searching for, because it helpfully brings a novice like me into a working knowledge of the technicalities of music, and analyzes each of its facets with scientific objectivity. The author of the book assumes an evolutionary model, which is a shame, but I find his descriptions of the brain and its functions, and of music's natural phenomena, to be outstanding evidence of the Lord's creative genius and intricate design of the minutest details. All of this, in itself, would make for worthwhile reading. But I am especially grateful for a firmer grasp on the function and impact of music, the way it is heard and grasped and remembered; because all of this has the potential to serve and support the Word of the Lord, to assist in catechesis and confession, prayer, praise and thanksgiving.

On that note, I was particularly taken by the following few paragraphs, which have nothing specifically to do with "catechesis" per se, but which I find to be most apropros to that most comprehensive pastoral task:

"Anders Ericsson, at Florida State University, and his colleagues approach the topic of musical expertise as a general problem in cognitive psychology involving how humans become experts in general. In other words, he takes as a starting assumption that there are certain issues involved in becoming an expert at anything; that we can learn about musical expertise by studying expert writers, chess players, athletes, artists, mathematicians, in addition to musicians.

"First, what do we mean by 'expert'? Generally we mean that it is someone who has reached a high degree of accomplishment relative to other people. As such, expertise is a social judgment; we are making a statement about a few members of a society relative to a larger population. Also, the accomplishment is normally considered to be in a field that we care about. As Sloboda points out, I may become an expert at folding my arms or pronouncing my own name, but this isn't generally considered the same as becoming, say, an expert at chess, at repairing Porsches, or being able to steal the British crown jewels without being caught.

"The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn't address why some people don't seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. But no one has yet found a case in which a true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

"The ten-thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissues. The more experience we have with something, the stronger the memory/learning trace for that experience becomes. Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to a greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation. This is true whether you subscribe to multiple-trace theory or any number of variants of theories in the neuro-anatomy of memory: The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced" (This Is Your Brain on Music, Levitin, pp. 196-197).

I'm not sure how appropriate it may be to speak of "expertise" in theology (the Word of God); though I suppose it is the case that a Christian ought to be such an "expert" relative to the populace of the world at large. Setting that aside, this "ten-thousand-hours theory" fits the rule that repetition is the mother of learning, as well as the catechetical approach of repeating key texts verbatim: not only to memorize them, to begin with, but then to continue praying and confessing them as the vocabulary of the Christian faith and life. We don't ever "master" the Word of God, but ten thousand hours of hearing and speaking His Word may well contribute to its "mastery" of us.

The Word of God, alive with His Spirit, is its own power and authority, unto repentance and faith, life and salvation. Yet, as the Word has become flesh, and Christ is both true God and perfect Man, so does His Word lay hold of us as finite creatures of flesh and blood and neural tissues. Our bodies are washed with water in order that we may be cleansed by His Word and Holy Spirit. Out bodies chew and swallow His Body and Blood, that we may be forgiven all our sins and granted His life and salvation, body and soul. As our eardrums reverberate with the very Word of Life, the Father's speaking of His Son and breathing of His Spirit, so do our brains receive and process and store that Word, that our hearts may believe unto righteousness and our mouths confess unto salvation. Catechetical pedagoy and memorization do not (and cannot) make anything more of this divine Word than it simply is. However, as God has determined to deal with us through the external Word and bodily means of grace, so is that Word of Christ temporally served and supported (or hindered and halted) by the methodology and process with which it is taught. Hearing it and repeating it, over and over again, makes a difference and helps the Christian to become an "expert" in the Word of God. That is a good thing.

Along with the pedagogy of repetition, music also aids and assists the assimilation of the Word of God in catechesis. That's another insight supported by Levitin's wonderful little book. Music engages the brain in multiples ways and at a variety of levels. It can bypass obstacles and damage that would hinder or prevent the comprehension and retention of speech. Of course, the Word of God that created all things out of nothing, which opens deaf ears and raises the dead out of their graves, does not need music to be efficacious and powerful unto salvation. For that matter, it need not be translated into the vernacular, nor explained to the catechumen, nor taught to anyone. Nevertheless, God speaks His Word to man, that man might hear and believe, confess and pray, and the Lord desire that all of this be done with heart and mind alike, with clarity and knowledge, with joy and delight. Thus, He translates the Gospel of His Son into the tongues of all the nations, and He encourages His people to sing His Word in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Luther understood the benefits of music, and he put that to excellent catechetical use. His catechetical hymns were some of his earliest and best contributions, and they still serve the Church beautifully in our day. Ten thousand hours of singing the Catechism may not make one an "expert singer," but I warrant that it would produce an excellent catechumen. The repetition, the poetry and rhythm of the text, and the music itself all serve and support the reception and retention of the Word that is carried and confessed in such hymnody. The same is true, more broadly speaking, with any other hymn that confesses the Word of Christ.

A friend recently shared with me a pedagogical approach that she has found and appreciated, which basically says that you stick with the training and teaching of particular knowledge and skills until they are learned, even if it takes a thousand repetitions (or even ten thousand). It is worth it to have that kind of patience and persistence for the sake of reading, math and science, for the arts and athletics. All the more so is it worthwhile, meet, right and salutary, for the sake of the Christian faith and eternal life with God in Christ.

If it takes ten thousand hours of doing something to become an expert, then what is accomplished or achieved by the constant influx of novelty, ever-changing gimmickry, here-today-gone-tomorrow fluff 'n' stuff, and every other clever case of variety for its own sake? It leaves the "creative professionals" in charge as the only experts on the always shifting field, while consigning everyone else to remain novices and neophytes forever. By contrast, the stable and consistent use of the historic liturgy and solid hymns, catechizes each and every Christian to become an "expert" theologian (if one dare speak in such human terms and categories). Christians learn it by heart and speak it by faith, because the precious Word of God produces fruit in them after its own kind.


Timothy May said...

Although not a student of music myself, I live in a family of musicians and have an appreciation of the role it plays. Based on what you share from the book and even from non-scientific and non-psychological vantage points, the "ten-thousand hours theory" seems to be a valid theory. For example, one sees the practice time involved by those who compete in the olympics, and, in the field of music, those who have become reknowned instrumentalists, soloists and composers (ie, "experts") As a life-long student of theology and history (B.A.) I have an appreciation for your relation of this theory to the areas of catechesis and liturgy. For example, this reminds me of those families who kept the faith from generation to generation, under communist oppression, by an oral tradition of repeating to their children and grandchildren the Creed and the Our Father (which they retained in memory even after their books were taken away). Memorization of liturgy and hymnody by repetition serves to form within the person a greater depth and understanding of the faith that can be drawn upon in time of need when there are no written resources available. In short the liturgy and hymnody, in their regular usage, pass on the faith even as they draw the hearer closer to God (as you describe so clearly here). Two additional thoughts: 1) The "constant influx of novelty, ever-changing gimmickry, here-today-gone-tomorrow fluff 'n' stuff", in my opinion, replaces the learning and memory of the faith with a shallow and artificial understanding of faith that is not far removed from entertainment. 2) The classical music tradition, with its complexity and breadth, tends to support the "ten-thousand hour theory" both in terms of reflecting "expertise" and, as a resource for conveying the sacred. Hence much hymnody is related to that tradition. Although I am a layman in these areas, I certainly appreciate a "ten-thousand hour theory" when applied to theology. Thanks for passing this on.

William Weedon said...

That's a great piece, Pastor Stuckwisch. I'm linking it!

Rev. Gregory J. Schultz said...

Thank you, Dr. Stuckwisch, for your very good words. Thi is an important concept for all who care anything about the church. Dovetailing from your last two paragraphs, I submit that we have a Fourth Commandment issue going on in the church when it comes to Catechesis and salutary use of the historic liturgy. It goes without saying that the members of our congregations who have lived long lives on the earth are worthy of our respect. That same respect is due them when it comes to what happens during the Sunday morning worship time. Sunday after Sunday, year after year, many of our senior citizens have spoken, sung, and chanted the historic liturgies and hymns of the church which they learned from their youth. For the duration of their years they have received our Lord's gifts in the ways they were delivered – in the liturgy, in the Sacraments, in the preaching of the Gospel. Many of these same people know the liturgy by heart; it has almost literally become part of their cell structure. When those who suffer from weakness and frailty have to enter care facilities or become shut-in and unable to attend the Divine Service, they rely on their pastor all the more to bring church to them – and he does so – by bringing them Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of their sins, the strengthening of their faith, and the grace to lead a God-pleasing life. These gracious gifts from God delivered by His undershepherd gird up the frail, strengthen the weak, and enable the feeble to hang on until the Lord brings them safely to the life of the world to come. On the other end of the age spectrum are the children of the church. The young are, among other things, amazing creatures created by God to soak up nearly everything they are given. Historic Lutheranism has long held to that precious Divine truth: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Part of training up our children is to bring them up in the “true knowledge and worship of God” as confessed in the Baptismal rite. If indeed we believe, teach and confess that the Divine Liturgy of the Church delivers all that a person needs on any given Sunday, then why do we practice liturgical fidgeting on the young and old alike, not to mention everyone in-between? How possibly can our younger Christians learn anything by heart liturgically and have anything of substance left on their lips when they grow old if what is to be learned changes every week? How will they ever learn or come to appreciate the theological importance of the Invocation, Confession, Absolution, Creeds, and the communion liturgy – all of which deliver God’s precious gifts of Gospel, Word, and Sacrament – if these things are re-created and re-set each and every time the children are brought to church by their parents? In effect, contemporary worship practices effectively banish the aged and the frail as well as the young and impressionable from the long-term worship life of the church. Instead of honoring our fathers and mothers in the church, and instead of training up our children in the way they should go, we dishonor the old and exasperate the young in one stroke of the creative worship brush.
the only acceptable, honorable, and beneficial response to the question, “Why don’t we schedule a contemporary service, Pastor?” is to teach, teach, and re-teach the Divine Liturgy for the benefit and consolation of the souls of our “fathers and mothers” in the faith, and for the edification and training up of our children. Putting in those ten thousand hours is a very good thing indeed.

Jim Lowitzer said...

Glad you discovered this book, Pastor Stuckwisch. I read it several months ago and have recommended to anyone involved in any way in music as well as anyone who might be interested in insights into brain function.

I certainly agree that there are implications here for catechesis. In addition, it made me ponder our approach to worship and the liturgy and the great value of repetition.

organistsandra said...

I really need to read that book.
A few comments from a musical perspective:

The genius of the Suzuki method of music instruction is that Shinichi Suzuki understood repetition. He often claimed that anyone could learn violin, and his method, stated simplistically, was to listen and repeat, over and over, until you master each step. He often mentioned playing a phrase 1000 times. (He also required the mother to learn ahead of the child, because the young child would only learn through imitation, but that's a slightly different point.) One of his famous sayings is that you don't practice something until you can get it right; you practice it until you can't get it wrong. Shinichi never talked in scientific terms of neural connections, but that's what was happening.

I've often thought about Suzuki philosophy in connection to catechesis. Being able to recite something like the ten commandments by memory is only the first step to knowing the commandments. It takes 1000 repetitions (or 10,000) before you own them; before they are a part of you in a way that changes you. And for the commandments, a lot of that repetition needs to happen in the liturgy and in catechesis.

There a similarities and benefits from the process of mastering any task, whether it be reading or playing piano or hitting a tennis ball. I don't know much about neural traces, but it seems to me that if you train your brain in one "skill", it can use that training for other "skills". That's one reason I think piano lessons are good for children. Learning the piano takes self-discipline and thousands of repetitions. Once you've seen that you can endure that, it can give you the confidence or the enduring power to stick to other tasks. Or, like your friend said, it is a matter of patience and persistence. It is worth it for the sake of music, it is worth it for the sake of rearing children, and all the more worth it for the sake of the Christian faith and eternal life with God in Christ.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sandra. I had not thought of the Suzuki method, but now that you mention it, I recall thinking (in the past) that it also offers a helpful model for catechesis.

AlanJones said...

Baptize and Teach. Daily drown the old man and let the new man arise. I may never get to be 10,000 hour person and I absolutely hated the daily dozen which for me was meaningless repetition. I also hated the math class that had you work the same problem over and over. I found I did much better with math (eventually getting a A in Calculus 5) by just reading the explanations and skipping the repetition. I have also seen those who have earned advanced degrees in both music and theology who are not what I would call experts. Just to let you know 10,000 hours is a very legalistic term. When the Gospel works it can not be measured. There is always more than that which can be measured. So yes I want the Gospel and Mercy every day but I also want it to be new every morning. If you use the same sermon every three years you are a lazy preacher. If you bore me with your music you are a lazy musician. Sing a new song. Of course new does not mean trite or cheap but real and meaningful -- The word of the Lord is living and active - You get the whole thing when the Spirit gives you faith, and yet it has depth and richness that can never be exhausted. If anyone is counting their 10,000 hours I will assure you they are no expert. But the man with the passion who finds it new every morning he just might be worth listening to.

Susan said...

>>Hearing it and repeating it, over and over again, makes a difference and helps the Christian to become an "expert" in the Word of God. That is a good thing.

Yes. It is.
And yet we still change from one version of the psalter to a different one. We change the words of the hymns. And there were those who wanted to change the catechism from NIV to ESV. When will we learn what we confess from the preface to the catechism, that we ought not to change the words? (And I'm not talking about contemp worship. I'm talking about new hymnals every 25 years.)
The Broken Record

Music is my passion said...

I realize I am replying to an old post, but this is the first time I have seen the website.
I am a Church Music Director and I appreciate your comments about mastering the catechism, the liturgy, and hymnody. While I enjoy playing, teaching, and singing the "historic" hymns of our church, I feel that there is a place for well written 20th and 21st Century poetry and music. All hymns were new at one point. The church needs to allow for (do I dare say it?) evolution--for change, for new hymnody-- so that the musicians and poets of our day can also earn a living like Bach or Mendelssohn and leave a legacy in the church. One of the main tragedies is that in the 19th Century there weren't enough musicians or enough churches willing to support the geniuses of that century. I fear it may be the same for our current centuries. Otherwise we are just encouraging the musicians and poets of our day to be neglected by the church and allowing their creativity to be used for only secular ventures. What overall future and historic value does that present for today's artists? Also as a musician who has mastered my musical abilities, I find no challenge, no sense of purpose, in regurgitating the same text and music in the same manner each Sunday. It loses its meaning not only for me but those singing the text. I can remember as a child being utterly bored hearing those around me singing the Gloria Patri in the most boring and uninspiring(non-dynamic) manner out of the TLH. It wasn't until I met with non-Lutheran organ instructors who taught me to read the meaning of the text then paint it with different musical colors, that it made more sense and was uplifting.
Also, on the way to mastering my musical abilities I was not playing the same piece 10,000 times but continuing to learn more in-depth, colorful techniques of the craft that many would consider creative in the process. Even in the Suzuki method, the same melody is repeated using different bowing techniques, dynamic contrasts, phrasing, tempos, etc. So therefore is there a way to continually bring new meaning, more in-depth analysis of the catechism to keep it fresh. Just saying the 6 chief parts 10,000 times to "master" them without competent instruction or in-depth study or bringing modern perspectives along with historic views will only bore the person.