I was reading "Can't Get You Out of My Head: Melody and the Brain" by Jayson Greene on The New MusicBox this morning and it struck me that musicians spend a great deal of time learning to play. Unlike other physical activities, music activates all areas of the brain. There is the physical nature of playing, whether it is with the fingers on the keys of a piano or the entire body as with a drum kit. The brain has to memorize how to maneuver the body in a precise way create the music. The eyes and cognitive area of the brain is active in reading the music. Even if the musician gets to the point of memorizing a piece, brain scans show the mental areas of cognitive thought still fire when playing a piece of music. Then there is the aural and/or artistic area of the brain which attempts to create something beautiful out of the physical and mental processes at work.
When a musician is actively listening to music, the same areas of the brain are active. So, a musician is thinking about how he/she might move to play the piece, what notes are involved (or how it might look on the page) and whether it is artistic. Athletes activate the physical and cognitive areas of the brain, but they aren't attempting to create something artistic, so that area of the brain remains dormant (unless we're talking about dance and/or floor routines which are accompanied by music). Chess players and computer programmers activate the cognitive areas of the brain and the artistic side but not the physical.
Thinking about this it occurs to me that perhaps this full range of activity by musicians over an extended period of time is why music affects the brain differently than other activities -- why people respond differently to music than to other stimulus.
Then I got to thinking about my own ability to write (or inability as the case may be) pop music, to get the sound right. I do well with classical forms that I've studied (and listened to) extensively. I am moderately good at 80's rock and many jazz forms, but then I grew up in the 70's and 80's listening to lots of rock music and played in orchestra, concert band and jazz band so I was exposed to a broad variety of styles in classical and jazz idioms. But I stopped actively playing in groups in the mid 80's as my life moved into the computer programming world. While I still listened to music, I didn't tend to explore new styles but stuck with what I already enjoyed.
Then, in 2004, I opted to return to my music education with active listening. My studies were focused on classical music, however my daughter was eagerly encouraging me to broaden my pop horizons as well. Unfortunately, I didn't spend the same time with pop music as I did classical. While I did gain an appreciation for new styles of pop music, I didn't grasp the idiom as well as I did classical music. Add to this my classical studies were an extension of what I already knew so further programming my brain with specific musical knowledge.
If the key to fully understanding a musical genre is to immerse the brain to the point all areas can create solid neural pathways, then I need to spend a great deal more time listening, playing and studying pop styles in order for me to accurately replicate them. I'm still in the midst of my Masters studies (and have a Model composition class where I'll be expected to write three pastiche pieces of three different classical composers this year) so it's probably not the best time to add something as intensive as immersion into modern pop music, but it is something I need to keep on the back burner if I ever want to be successful with it.