This Is Your Brain on Minimalism. Any Questions?

Above: the Israel Contemporary String Quartet performs an excerpt from Steve Reich’s minimalist masterpiece Different Trains.

There’s a famous knock-knock joke about the American minimalist composer Philip Glass. It goes like this:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

(repeat ad nauseam.)

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Philip Glass.

Although Glass has disavowed the “minimalist” label for his music, he has owned that the architecture of his music is based on what he calls “repetitive structures.” And he’s not alone. The knock-knock joke above could just as easily be about any other composer branded a “minimalist,” including Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams, to name a few who have subscribed to an aesthetic based on heavy doses of repetition.

Now there’s science that says the repetition in minimalist music might be doing something especially interesting in our brains, according to Southern California Public Radio station KPCC.

Lisa Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, told KPCC that music with a lot of repetition might lead listeners into feeling “in sync” with each other:

“One of the things that happens when you’re listening to music that repeats, is that you form a kind of connection to it that mimics a state of social understanding and of social cohesion. So when you’re having a good conversation with someone, often there’s these subtle forms of entrainment that happen where your timing get in sync with each other and this is one of these subtle cues that can tell you how high quality a particular social interaction is. So when music is really repetitive, you can get in sync with it and entrained with it in a way that feels pleasing,” Marguilis said.

So the next time you need to get on someone’s wavelength – or to get someone else on yours – turn on some Philip Glass, or some Steve Reich. Then play it again, Sam!

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