Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Psychology of Music: What Instrument are You?

I've recently started going to the quarterly talks benefiting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra known as "Medical Grand Rounds."  I will admit to being a bit apprehensive about attending given my total and absolute lack of knowledge about neuroscience and physiology.  (The mere fact that I am writing those words is remarkable in and of itself.)  But I was interested, so decided to check it out.  The sessions are fascinating.
Dr. Tony Gil with Maestro Ponti
Last week-end's talk featured Maestro Raffaele Ponti, who spoke about the psychology of music.  Dr. Tony Gil introduced the subject with some "basic" information about "your brain on music."  The fact is that listening to music that you enjoy -- be it Rachmaninoff  or the Rolling Stones -- triggers the release of dopamine in your system.  Dopamine is the "feel good" chemical that is your body's reward for doing something you enjoy (more traditionally, eating and sex).  With that background in mind, the Maestro took the podium.

Maestro Ponti 
Raffaele began with a basic introduction to an orchestra. (I for one always appreciate a bit of "classical music for dummies.") An orchestra has four sections:  strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. A musician's choice of instrument depends in part on his or her physical attributes. Having short arms is a bit of an impediment to being a trombone player, for instance.  But once you've gotten past these physical aspects, Raffaele posits that there is a connection between a musician's personality and her instrument.  Here's a quick and dirty summary of his take on the topic.

Strings:  Violins are the core of the orchestra since they create the melody.  Violinists are often high strung and have large egos. Violas, on the other hand, are the "unsung heroes of the string section."  Their larger, darker sound bridges the gap between the violins and the rest of the orchestra, but they don't get any glory.  The bass, too, is a supporting instrument, so bass players are generally team spirited.  Everyone loves the cello, which does get some solos, so people who play this instrument have personalities that fall somewhere between those of violinists and violists.

Woodwinds:  Oboes are used to tune the orchestra, so oboists tend to think they always do things right.  Flautists and piccolo players are a bit flamboyant and love the attention they garner with their solos. Clarinetists get the chance to play a lot of notes, and they tend to love the technical aspects of music.  The bassoon is an instrument you almost never actually hear, so their players are content to be an important--if invisible--part of the team.

Raffaele showing off his honorary
MD (music director) white coat
Brass:  As a trumpet player turned conductor, Raffaele made no qualms about saying that trumpet players are the troublemakers in the room.  They tend to have big egos and want to be heard (literally).  "There's a reason you put them in the back of the hall," he said.  Trombonists, on the other hand, tend to be very easy going, and tuba players are just nice people.  (They would have to have a bit of a sense of humor, too, to be willing to schlep their instruments around.)  One of the roles of the French horn is to merge the woodwinds and brass sections.  The fact that the bell of the French horn actually points away from the audience says it all.

Percussion:  Percussionists spend their lives thinking about things that they can bang, scrape or pluck to make music.  They tend to be quirky and fun but patient since they are always setting up the next instrument to play.  (Pianos are technically considered percussion instruments since music is made with the strike of the hammer.)

Raffaele had encouraged his listeners to think about which instrument best suits their own personalities as he talked.  For once, I wasn't the only person making notes.  And here's the exciting news:  Medical grand rounds attendees have been invited to sit in "their" instrument's section at the CSO's rehearsal on November 15th.  It's an adaptation for adults of the CSO's "musical chairs" program.  Needless to say, I am all over that.  I won't, however, reveal what instrument I've selected until I share the experience with you here.  Stay tuned!

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