TED

This Is Your Brain on Guitar II

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Way back in July of 2011, [Holy Crap! 5 years already!] I wrote a post titled THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON GUITAR! If you haven’t read it and you play a musical instrument, including guitar, you should, because…it illustrates how science has learned so much about how we as players…learn how to play. We can apply this knowledge so that our practice sessions and teaching others is done in a more effective way (something I have covered on the blog here too many times to list). Anyhoo, some of the info is obvious and easily understood to all of you pros out there, but there are a few surprises contained within! Researchers have only begun to scratch the surface of how our brains really work and what they’re doing right now amounts to noticing what various areas of the brain do (with scans MRIs, etc), while we do things (including, playing an instrument).

brain2That first post detailes how researchers at Harvard Medical School and Rice University were in the process of exploring how our brains learn, which is necessary if you want to be able to play. This next step in the process is observing what our brains do while we improvise which is what we are able to do once we have learned a bunch of stuff. This following article and presentation is the result of a lot of study and research and experimentation by Dr. Charles Limb and his team. They have been at this for awhile and I just came across it thanks to a Facebook link from a guy I play with sometimes. The TED talk I link below is actually older than my post on the brain, but hey…I’m a guitar player not a scientist. Anyhow, according to the TED website, Dr. Limb is ” Chief of Otology/Neurotology and Skull Base Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, and he’s a Faculty Member at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He combines his two passions to study the way the brain creates and perceives music. He’s a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins who performs cochlear implantations on patients who have lost their hearing. And he plays sax, piano and bass.” I’m not going to explain it all here because everyone should watch the presentation and/or read the article. It’s really good stuff. The gist of it is that during improvisation or freestyle rapping, the areas of our brain dedicated to self-expression heat up while those areas of the brain that inhibit creativity quiet down. Those would be areas that would make you afraid of making a mistake for instance. What is interesting is that co-author Allen Braun noticed that the scans of people improvising look the same as the scans of people dreaming. Pretty cool stuff. That’s why you should read the article. And make sure you practice. So you can dream. Like Duke Ellington…

As I related in the “This Is Your Brain” post…musicians have long known instinctively what science is now confirming. Duke and Django, Jimi and Jimmy and everyone had a sense of what the brain does when one is playing and learning to play an instrument. The article can be viewed here. HERE is an interview with Dr. Limb that is pretty interesting and below is the TED talk on the subject. Enjoy!

Brave New World?

Musicians, artists, writers, designers and other creative people are in a perpetual state of harried flux as they try to keep up with all of the technological advances that have enabled revolutionary methods for creating and communicating. This is also true of businesses who have long been the arbiters of content creation, distribution and world-wide entertainment. As the changes gather momentum and the multitudes that are interconnected in cyberspace share INFORMATION, everyone must hustle to stay ahead of the curve or they run the risk of obsolescence. The old modes and models are fading away and younger generations come of age with no frame of reference to how the business of creation and delivery to marketplace was done before technological advances enabled these new paradigms. Unless you live in a cave you know this has created a great degree of tension: lively discussions, court cases, large fines, threats, jail time, and even death.

What is at the center of many of these disagreements are the issues of ownership and control. Who controls information? Who owns the content? Who controls the means of content delivery between people? Do laws that were written before this technological explosion took place still apply and should they? Are they even relevant anymore? Who should decide? What role do individuals have in deciding the fates of their entertainment? How much does the sharing/interaction process now affect and relate to the creative process? Is it time for new business models? Is the idea of music as a business outdated, outmoded and irrelevant? These issues can be expanded out into the greater realm of topics that are at the forefront of national and international discussion: How big is TOO BIG? Should any company or organization be TOO BIG TO FAIL? Are corporations people? How does the immense wealth of certain individuals and corporations negatively effect the electoral process in what are supposed to be democracies or republics? Are large, heavily-centralized entities really sustainable? Do they serve producers and consumers better than a smaller, more decentralized businesses? CAN’T WE JUST GO BACK TO QUAD-STEREO 8-TRACKS?

Some of these issues have already been explored on this blog:
here, here, here, here, and here. Though technology has changed the landscape dramatically in the last 20 years, the business of music, content development, delivery to an audience and copyright has always been an ongoing evolution. Here are some opinions on the current state of the music and entertainment industry from people you may know and some you don’t.

Zoiks! Gene Simmons from KISS blames the fans for ruining the music industry and hints that music as we know it will disappear because there is no incentive to make it without the potential for some kind of profit. I don’t completely disagree with the second part of his point, but the first part is a real doozy. Gene’s mad as hell and not taking it anymore…BTW, have you seen KISS Visa Card? He’s looking a little bit like The Terminator in this clip and I’m not sure what all the talk about “Big Tits” is about. (Women play music too, amirite?) I don’t know why, but this interview and the credit card and the “business” reminds me of this Young Ones sketch from the early 80s. Maybe this interview is supposed to be comedy.

And now for something totally and completely different. Here’s a point of view RANT I saw on one of my social media connections. I was actually surprised when I read it because usually this connection is pretty guarded. Maybe jet lag or a hacker had something to do with it but the sentiment has never been retracted. I’m not going to say who it was because this wasn’t an official publicity release. What really matters is this is a pretty successful musical entity that obviously has the same concerns as any musician regarding copyrights, control, etc.

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You’re probably thinking that the above author must be a punk rocker, death metal player, or someone with a lot of steel embedded in his/her face(NO, NO, and NO). Nothing is said about rap music or breasts and there is a very low opinion of Hollywood and the people in the entertainment industry. How Un-American! The author must be French! (NO). They also don’t care they’ve been ripped off. What gives?? The quote references the documentary below on the notorious online entity known as The Pirate Bay. Founded in Sweden in 2003, the site helps facilitate peer-to-peer file sharing by providing links to various types of (torrent) files that are posted (and downloaded) by users all over the world. The documentary is worth a watch when you have a moment. Many of the main drivers to all of the controversies that surround this BRAVE NEW WORLD (?) issue are contained within.

Here’s a letter to the editor of The New York Times that came to me via ROCKRAP. This is a very official type of communiqué on another aspect of the music industry. The author of the letter is Rubén Blades, a Grammy Award-winning singer, actor and activist.

“…Tom Carson’s review of Clive Davis’s “Soundtrack of My Life” (March 17) states: “As the head of Columbia Records in the 1960s, he discovered, among others, Janis Joplin.” Record executives do not discover artists: they stumble upon them. Not even Christopher Columbus would have had the chutzpah to claim he “made” America. Undisputedly, Davis contributed to making such talents publicly known. But at whose expense? Joplin probably never received her fair share of royalty payments and may never have owned her masters; nor is it likely that her family inherited the full financial fruits of her work. These usually go to people who can’t sing, can’t write, can’t play and yet end up millionaires, while true artists, like Rodriguez, end up broke and ripped-off. That record executives step forward to usurp credit for artists’ success is not uncommon. More disconcerting is that their self-serving accounts are considered worthy of review in your pages.

RUBÉN BLADES, New York

I believe that maybe this was part of the letter. I can’t find the original. If you’re confused about how we go from Janis Joplin to Rodriguez, I think Rubén is talking about Sixto Rodriguez, another very interesting music story. While there are some who would think that Rubén is being unduly harsh, the entertainment industry is completely PACKED with people who share his sentiments. Genre-defining, instrument-reinventing artists like Jimi Hendrix and his Experience made a whole lot of money for people who didn’t even know what end of the guitar to hold. If the influence of The Blues and Blues songs on rock and roll music was measured in dollars almost all of the early blues artists would’ve been very wealthy. Most of them died with much less.

What about big rock bands, like The Rolling Stones…what about them? They certainly have been very successful over the years. Probably have a good outlook on how the business is run, etc, etc. Mick Jagger expressed his views on file sharing in an interview with the BBC during the anniversary celebration of the release of Exile on Main Street. Mick’s answers are in blue type:

Things have obviously changed a great deal since those sessions. What’s your feeling on technology and music?

Technology and music have been together since the beginning of recording.

I’m talking about the internet.

But that’s just one facet of the technology of music. Music has been aligned with technology for a long time. The model of records and record selling is a very complex subject and quite boring, to be honest.

But your view is valid because you have a huge catalogue, which is worth a lot of money, and you’ve been in the business a long time, so you have perspective.

Well, it’s all changed in the last couple of years. We’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things – assuming you’ve got any money.

Are you quite relaxed about it?

I am quite relaxed about it. But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records. But I have a take on that – people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone! Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone. So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

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NOTE: There are many more opinions and thoughts from various artists at the ROCKRAP site, including Tom Petty, Chuck D, Ice T and Pete Townshend, who provides a very eye-opening perspective.

In the following clip Lawrence Lessig presents an interesting overview on the early evolution of the music business, including the “Bidness War” between ASCAP and BMI, as part of TED talk he gives titled “Laws that Choke Creativity.” A very good talk and the historical parallels he draws are important for those who believe the issues that surround entertainment creation and delivery today are something new.

Another enterprising fellow who has garnered media attention lately is ex-hacker/businessman Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload and it’s associated sites. He rolled out Megaupload’s successor, Mega, in January on the 1-year anniversary of his arrest from copyright infringement and the forced-closing of Megaupload. Dotcom has been accused of costing the entertainment industry hundreds of millions of dollars and is currently fighting extradition to the USA for trial. He is defiant, believes he will be acquitted, and has plans to encrypt half of the internet to protect users from spying eyes. If for no other reasons, The Pirate Bay movie and Dotcom’s interview videos are interesting to watch not only because the networking, sharing, and business models are exposed, but it’s also amazing to see how it all GROWS, most of it virally. Dotcom estimates that at it’s zenith, Megaupload had 800 file transfers per second, 24/7/365. Fascinating! It’s important to note that there were plenty of legitimate users on Megaupload so it’s not like all of those transfers were “infringement” on anything.

Finally, are you one of those people who thinks music today is totally worthless? Does it seem everything in mainstream entertainment is written for a 12 year-old girl? Does the tired, formula-driven aura that surrounds the entertainment business remind you of other too-big-to-fail entities out there ravaging the landscape in an ever-increasingly desperate attempt to suck money out of your wallet while giving you nothing in return? Well, YOU ARE NOT ALONE! As a matter of fact, there are some really successful music icons who feel the same way you do! This last link is an entertaining, sometimes educational documentary on the music business in the USA. As a “movie” or “documentary” Before the Music Dies certainly has its shortcomings. The “flow” of the film could’ve been better and certainly watching it in clipped bits on Youtube doesn’t help. The film highlights some of the authentic artists performing today with live music clips but some of the performances are too long and I was skipping through to get back to the thread of the movie. Many salient aspects of modern “music production” — The 1996 Telecommunications Act, ClearChannel, Auto-tune, butt implants, quarterly profit returns and much more are covered and in some cases demonstrated to very grim or hilarious results (depending on your point of view). The numerous interviews (Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Doyle Bramahll II, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Questlove, North Mississippi All-Stars and Brandford Marsalis) are very illuminating to say the least. It warms my heart to watch performers who have reached this level of success deriding the superficial, profit-driven, multi-tentacled vampire squid that is the entertainment business today. Bonnie Raitt, Brandford Marsalis and Dave Matthews all have some great money quotes and Eryka Badu is awesomely funny in a biting, social-commentary kind of way. I recommend highly — enjoy the movie and figure out how it may or may not impact your career or musical journeys.

Lead like a Great Conductor

Itay Talgam, an orchestra conductor and business consultant from Israel gives a very humorous and interesting lecture while profiling 6 famous symphony conductors. Conducting an orchestra, leading a band, running a business all require a leadership role and there are many different ways one can approach the challenge. Talgam knows his stuff and this is a very entertaining video even if one doesn’t like classical music.

While the focus on this talk centers on how different leadership styles can influence and effect the nature of one’s business and success, there are some ideas that any musician can take from it too. One can be a player (or band leader) who is very happy or serious and firm. One can let the music happen or perhaps be very controlling so that the prepared or pre-arranged ideas are played without any spontaneity or participation of other people or things in the “story” of the music. Or perhaps you can combine elements and lead (or play) in a manner that is spontaneous and involves others while maintaining the order and control needed to put across even a very complex performance. There is something mighty attractive and exhilarating about the concept of “doing without doing”. Great players and leaders are capable of getting out of the way of The Music without relinquishing the command needed to avoid a descent into chaos. Talgam shows how this is possible through the approach of two highly-respected conductors, Leonard Bernstein and Carlos Kleiber.

There are plenty of illuminating talks on TED although many of them are not music-related. Even though this is a guitar blog, it’s very important to realize that as players, we are all influenced by many things in the world around us. Guitar-playing does not exist in a vacuum and all of the best players have stated at one time or another how a great song, a great idea for a lick or even a new piece of technology or way of doing things was caused by something that was completed unrelated to the guitar and probably happened when they didn’t have a guitar in their hands.