Myelin and Musical Analysis

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schenkeriannotationI recently read Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, which is all about the neurology of excellence. The central theme is that certain forms of deep practice enable the brain to develop in ways that allow you to get very good at something. The key process involves the way neurons get wrapped in a substance called myelin, which has the effect of ‘insulating’ the activated neural path so that it can fire ever more quickly and efficiently.

There were several key elements to the type of activity that leads to these highly myelinated paths. Repetition is important (the neurons that fire the most get insulated the most), as is working at the outer edge of your competence: making mistakes and correcting yourself is an integral part of the process. Musicians know this: there is a difference between actually practising and just playing through stuff. Even ‘worthy’ activities like technical drills don’t add much if you just do them rather than practise them.

But the aspect that I’ve found myself thinking about the most since finishing the book is the relationship between whole and part. Deep practice involves drilling down into minute details, slowing things down so you can grasp every nuance of the moment. It also involves a process of ‘chunking’, of aggregating details into bigger units read as a whole. Increasing expertise sees people shunting between levels, reaching ever more micro- and macro- perspectives on what they’re doing.

And this shunting between levels is exactly what Schenkerian analysis is good at. Other forms of musical analysis also involve chunking, but rarely so flexibly and responsively. Cooper and Meyer-style rhythmic analysis, for instance, continues to give me useful ways to think about musical time from the level of articulation to medium-term form, but as a systematic approach it gets boring. You want to explore the inner workings of a theme, or the phrase structure of an exposition, but filling in the complete scaffolding that would systematically show how the hypermetric level is built upon all the intermediate levels down to sub-division of the beat is a grind. What you really want to do is what teachers (and indeed authors) do: explore a particular level enough to get the point, then chunk up to integrate it into the bigger picture.

And Schenkerian analysis allows us to do this much better than most methods. You can get into all your favourites bits in the little notes, or you can feel the middle-ground sweep through an intricate surface, or you can feel the long-range tonal drama of the form. And you can shunt between these levels as you wrap your brain round the musical processes, without being locked into either a top-down or a bottom-up approach.

Music analysis founded its status as a self-aware academic discipline on claims of systematic methods. And I’m not entirely knocking that, especially in higher education. Clear, consistent and methodical thought are useful skills for graduates to take into their professional lives.

But I think a stronger claim for Schenkerian analysis is that it is intensely musical. Not just its obvious characteristic of using musical notational symbols to articulate its content (useful though that is), but the way it models and indeed facilitates the conceptual shunting between micro and macro that lies at the heart of that function we call musicianship, or – if we’re feeling brave - ‘musicality’. When Tim Howell wrote that ‘Reading someone else’s analysis…is almost the equivalent of asking someone to practise on your behalf,’ he captured this very nicely.

Schenker only really makes sense (to me, at least) in the context musical praxis, and whether you’re doing it on paper or at the instrument, or both, its processes of attention to detail and recontextualisation get you into that place where you automatically start to engage in the other characteristic behaviours of deep practice. You find yourself at the edge of your ability, going over the same parts repeatedly, stopping and thinking, making mistakes and correcting yourself: is that a neighbour note?... which of this flurry is structure, which ornament?...hang on, that line needs to be supported by the harmony.

The reason you feel like you emerge from a session of Schenkerian analysis a better musician than you started is partly because of the insights about a particular piece you have gained. But it’s also because you’ve grown a new layer of myelin on your tonal comprehension circuits that will help you engage in more joined-up and efficient musical thought for the rest of your life.

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