Mike Rud ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Mike Rud ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Mike Rud
21st Century Guitar Conference
Perez Hall, University of Ottawa
Sunday, August 25, 2019 – 2 p.m.

Mike Rud has a deep and abiding interest in how the brain works – and from that has gained insights which have helped him as a musician.

The JUNO-winning composer and jazz guitarist was speaking at the 21st Century Guitar conference in Ottawa last Sunday. He told the audience that his studies on psychology at the University of Ottawa and McGill University, including with cognitive psychologist Dr. Daniel Levitin, taught him lessons “which shaped my musical practice”.

“The conceptual tools I met in studying the sciences of brain and mind helped clarify my thinking as a practicing musician and a teacher,” he said. Rud has a masters in jazz performance from McGill, and studied psychology for several years at the University of Ottawa. Starting in 2007, he worked in Levitin's Music and Cognition laboratory at McGill, researching how the brain processes music.

“The time I spent learning about the brain in the Levitin lab and studying psychology at U of O changed my perspective forever about what music is, and what we're doing when we practice it.”

In an engaging half-hour talk, he outlined several lessons from psychology that sharpened his musicianship.

1. Our brains are wired for music, although we don't know why

The feeling that we get when we listen to certain rhythms or melodies or chords, “why would evolution equip us with a brain that would bother keeping track of such a thing? The short answer is that I have no clue. … But maybe music's not there because it's rational – maybe it's there because it's somehow helped us adapt to our world.”

He pointed to Levitin's book The World in Six Songs, which attempted to answer this question. Levitin traced music back to six basic functions that music fulfills in every culture: songs about friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. “All the humans we've ever found have created music that fulfills these purposes.”

When a specific behaviour is that widespread, it's not just coincidental, Rud said. Levitin proposed that music is a special adaptation of the human brain and that these six song types probably existed even in our far ancestors “because they do some heavy lifting that our species requires for survival” – for example, for passing on information.

“Evolutionary psychology showed me that music may not just be some extracurricular activity, but a crucial piece of human survival and human identity.”

2. How we remember affects how we appreciate musical phrases

Studies have shown that people are best at remembering the start and the end of a series of words – what's called primacy and recency effects. That means, Rud said, that musicians should ensure they create memorable beginnings and endings for phrases and tunes, and aim their phrases towards those endings.

“If I'm listening to an improvising soloist and they play a long sequence of notes, it's the first and last members of that sequence that leave the clearest impression on the listener. It's a strong argument for improvising soloists to practice ending phrases in organized, coherent, and appealing ways.”

If musicians start a phrase in a rhythmically-unfocused way, listeners will remember the unfocused beginning more than anything interesting in the middle of the phrase. “We in the audience can't help how our mind is built.”

And, if musicians make a mistake or play a note they don't like, they should keep playing, not stop. “The recency effect comes swooping in here to ensure the listener remembers just a bunch of uncertain, unintended, rhythmically unsettled phrases, because the mistakes always come last, punctuated by silence.”

3. Understanding how long-term memory works helps in learning tunes

Players starting out often use brute-force sense memory rehearsal: fixing the image of a section of a piece of music in their mind as they play it. But that's not how the masters work, Rud said.

“Often when novice players see jazz musicians who seem to know hundreds of tunes by memory, they can't believe what they're seeing. Possibly the novice is extrapolating their own process of short-term rehearsal and imagining that the seasoned player has a miraculous capacity to retain thousands of times more information in that limited-size holding tank of sense memory. But this is not at all the case. Most longer-term recall of tunes rests on having moved the musical material in question into a deeper holding area, one that resists decay and confusion.”

That's done by deconstructing the piece, he said, and drawing relationships between its different sections. “In other words, we analyze the harmony and the melody.” As a musician analyzes a song – perhaps learning it in a few different keys – they're memorizing it much more deeply.

In psychology, this is known as “elaborative processing”, he said. Studies have shown that in general, the more deeply information is processed, linked to other ideas or words, and encoded, the better it is remembered.

4. Be patient in practicing

Psychology teaches that shorter and more frequent works better for learning, Rud says – and definitely for practicing.

“If you have 3½ hours in a week that you can practice, you're likely better off practicing 30 minutes a day than in one 3½-hour chunk on a Sunday afternoon. The theory as to why this works is that your memory gets consolidated during sleep – so the more sleeps you pack in between practice sessions, the more you're backing up your brain's mind-files as you move forward.”

The mind is not separate from the body, Rud said. “We are our brains” – and it's reasonable to see practicing an instrument as an extension of the biological processes that allow us to form memories and action patterns.

Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb discovered that neurons that fire together, wire together – the physical basis of practice makes perfect, Rud said. The consistent restimulation from one neuron to the next causes the growth of more connections between those two neurons. “It's a growth process which in turn makes further repetition more likely and easier.”

He pointed to a study of violin students which showed growth in the parts of their brains that corresponded to their left-hand fingers, after they studied violin. That growth correlated with the age at which they began to play.

What does that mean for musicians? “Being patient. That means realizing that practicing doesn't magically improve our performance. It means committing to a practice process and having some patience to let that process have its effect in the brain and the nervous system.”

“Tissue has to grow in. That's a developmental, biological process, like letting your hair grow. You can influence the direction and rate of this process by showing up to the task.”

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