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Concert Lecture Review/ Daniel Levitin & Edwin Outwater: Beethoven and Your Brain

img  Tobias Fischer

Daniel Levitin, Host/Author
Edwin Outwater, Host/Conductor
Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra

    An unusual evening combining scientific knowledge, musical excerpts, and above all, laughter, “Beethoven and Your Brain” was the first of several lecture series hosted by the Koerner Hall. Joining forces on stage were Daniel Levitin, Professor of Psychology, Behavioural Neuroscience and Music at McGill University; Edwin Outwater, Conductor and Music Director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra (KWSO), and of course, the indispensable KWSO ensemble itself providing the musical demonstrations. This unique opportunity of placing “a stethoscope in music” largely attributed to the near full-house attendance at the Koerner Hall. At the end, each in the audience should have appreciated the fact that, music, after all, need not be a complex language if one places his/her senses on simple musical building blocks.

     In this concert-lecture, the two hosts Levitin and Outwater dissected the compelling evidence behind a scientific hypothesis: our human brain can be conditioned to understand and react to music, however complex, based on recognition of musical motifs. Using musical excerpts from orchestral works by Beethoven (the Egmont Overture, Op.84; Symphony No.5 Op.67), members of the audience were each given a “clicker” to interactively participate in a number of questionnaires aimed to probe into the psychological responses after hearing these excerpts performed by the KWSO. Some of the questions asked by Levitin and Outwater included: “What is the major reason you are attending (this particular) classical concert?” / “How many times can you recognize the “da-da-da, daaa” theme being used in the 1st movement?” (in Symphony No.5)? It was intriguing to see the audience’s responses to the questionnaire, most of which narrowed down to one or two majority response. Levitin argued that, in fact, many of our responses to music (a form of stimuli) can be attributed to direct neural (sensory) inputs from our brain, stored in the form of memory in a region of our brain known as the Amygdala. Outwater further commented that our minds can recognize a musical excerpt, intuitively remembers it, and would respond to it emotionally in a particular fashion each time it is being repeated by the composer in a piece of music. To highlight this claim, the KWSO musicians performed the transitioning segment of the third movement from the Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 that leads to the broad, triumphant fortissimo C major theme of the fourth movement. The two hosts invited the audience to express themselves unrestrainedly (either by shouting, clapping or whistling) each time this theme is introduced within the movement. As a group, the audience was able to identify this theme in all its repeated forms, confirming Levitin’s and Outwater’s conclusion that to understand classical music, or any music written by a composer, our neural system with the brain as its commanding center, is fully capable to absorb, translate and enable us to feel music as it is meant to be. 

     Unlike other music concerts hosted at the Koerner Hall, this concert-lecture was not only entertaining, but intellectually rewarding for each in the audience. Coming out from the event, Levitin and Outwater had unraveled a new way of music appreciation unlike any others have done in recent years. 

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Andrew Tolson

Homepage: Daniel Levitin
Homepage: Edwin Outwater
Homepage: Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra

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