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Based on past experience at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting, I thought I could just stroll into the opening Dialogues lecture a few minutes before it began and park myself just about anywhere. After all, there are about 5,000 seats in the San Diego Convention Center’s massive ballroom, and there were always open seats in past years. But not this year.
That’s because Pat Metheny, one of the world’s best-known jazz composers, guitar players, and band leaders—someone who mostly lets his music do the talking—was the featured guest at “Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society: Music and the Brain.”
After finally finding a seat all the way in the right corner, I watched on a screen as SfN President Richard Huganir and ear surgeon Charles Limb, former colleagues at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (Limb has since moved to UCSF), moderated the program with passion and experience. Both spun personal, humorous anecdotes about the impact that Metheny’s music has had on their lives.
In much the same way, I’m also a devoted fan; I’ve seen Metheny perform probably at least ten times over 40 years and own about 20 of his albums. Many of the cuts and albums that were woven into the program were like old friends. When I biked across the Katy Trail in Metheny’s home state of Missouri a few years ago, I listened almost exclusively to his music for five straight days.
So hearing him challenged by the moderators and audience was nothing less than thrilling.
Why Metheny for this lecture? For one thing, studies increasingly show that music positively affects health, especially for people with dementia. But just as fascinating is what goes on in the brain of a master improviser. How is he or she formed, how do they think and execute their craft?
Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, there were as many questions as answers. At the core of music creation, Metheny believes, is soul, and that is a part of the musical stew that we may never understand. In terms of where the brain, music, and consciousness meet, Limb and Huganir agreed that is indeed a difficult question. We are still probably 20 years away from knowing many of the mysteries that are currently under examination, they agreed.
You don’t need to be a Metheny fan—or even a jazz fan— to benefit from watching this insightful program, which you can now see on SfN’s YouTube channel.
Here are some of my personal Metheny highlights:
- Great improvisers need to be in the moment and great listeners. They should have a sense of storytelling and long ideas that spin the idea out to its natural conclusion. Jazz is difficult for a lot of people because they only hear it played at an intermediate level—most intermediate improvisers send out too many ideas to the listener. One of Metheny’s mentors, vibraphonist Gary Burton, used to say, “It’s like a flashlight and you are showing them things.”
- The drums are the most important part of any band, no matter whose name is on the marquee … You might play a weird note here and there, but if it feels good, you’re in.
- When you play 150 concerts a year, you hire musicians who can provide fresh insights every night. If the third tune is about Brussels sprouts, you can say anything you want about Brussels sprouts—that they are from outer space, or from your mom’s garden. But on that tune, talk about Brussels sprouts, not lettuce or potatoes. Each moment over the course of an evening should have its own topic.
- Burton recently retired, claiming he felt a decline in his playing due to aging, But Metheny feels that at age 64, he is better now because he’s been playing for 50 years and has infinitely more avenues to go down in any given second. He recently played drummer Roy Haynes’ 93rd birthday party. Off stage, Roy may be a little more spacey, but on the kit, he hasn’t lost a thing.
- He was very lucky to be around great musicians from Kansas City as a 15 and 16-year-old. But as the night would go on, they were indulging in “substances.” It became clear to him that the band sounded worse as the night went on. For that reason, he has never had a drink, nor used any drugs … not on moral grounds, but for practical reasons.
- At the core of what it takes to be a good musician, is the ability to have discipline. He is aware that things go on that he doesn’t understand or have an explanation for. He is more curious than frustrated.
- The hardest thing is melody. You can go to any college and study harmony and rhythm, but melody is impossible to quantify. Melody happens between the notes. It’s the way it’s all connected; it’s the glue.
- He tries to block out other senses when he plays because they can be a distraction, but every musician might address that issue in a different way.
That’s just a small taste of the program. I will have the great privilege of sitting down with Metheny later this month for a Dana Foundation podcast. It should prove interesting. UPDATE: Here’s our podcast with Metheny.