By Bliss Bowen

Several times, while reading neuroscientist and Pasadena Opera Creative Director Indre Viskontas’ book “How Music Can Make You Better,” I found myself nodding in agreement or stopping to consider a provocative idea. Her contention that “music isn’t music until our minds make it so” was one that caught my attention.

“The point I’m trying to make is not that you need to know that particular piece of music, but that you need to recognize that the sound you’re hearing is music, almost before your brain decides that it’s music,” she elaborated during a recent phone interview. “If you say the same sentence over and over and over again, eventually it sounds as though you’re singing it. That is because of something that happens in your brain. When you’re first listening to speech, you’re kind of just parsing it for meaning of the words … but if it continues to be repeated, you start to hear things like the cadence and the rhythm and the melody of what’s being said, and it becomes music.”

The value of context is a recurring theme in Viskontas’ book, which was published by Chronicle in 2019. She cited the different reception we give to birds singing in a park, where they can be interpreted as background noise, and bird songs played in a concert hall. “The sound stimulus, the actual sound wave hitting your ears, is the same,” she explained. “What’s different is that your brain is now finding different layers of meaning in what it has labeled as music.”

So for those of us who open our windows to the music of nature, it’s music because we choose to identify it as such? Yes. “Music is this whole other way of interpreting sound,” Viskontas said. Over time, we have evolved to perceive music as both storytelling and a search for meaning.

In the book, she references John Cage’s infamous 1952 composition “4’33” — 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, or rather the random shuffles and snuffles we wouldn’t normally hear. “The music is in the sounds that the listeners hear while the players are not playing. John Cage considered it his most important work,” she writes.

“That piece really makes it clear that context — what is happening in addition to the actual music — is part of the music,” she said over the phone. “And you can’t separate the two.”

The nexus of music, creativity and science fascinates Viskontas as both chamber musician and professor. She’s given a TED talk on the subject (https://bit.ly/3mkGQVd) and has written or co-written numerous articles, including the recent white paper “Music for Every Child” (https://bit.ly/3cRqLU9). On April 12, she’ll discuss her book during an online event for Caltech.

In its later pages, she calls music a “powerful social glue,” suggesting it “binds people together … by harnessing empathy.” In conversation, she mentions the “synchrony” that occurs at chamber and rock concerts alike, where the music causes “group stillness” or synchronized jumping or dancing. It’s what forges the connections whose absence we’ve mourned this past year, and what’s missing from livestreams.

“I think we’re going to see a huge pent-up demand for live music once it seems safe,” she said. “Before the pandemic, we didn’t always realize just how important those moments were. When they got completely wiped out, that’s when people began to feel, ‘Wow, something fundamental is missing.’”


Indre Viskontas discusses “How Music Can Make You Better” with Caltech Director of Chamber Music Maia Jasper White

WHEN: 5 to 6 p.m. Monday, April 12

WHERE: Virtual

COST: Free, but reservations are required

INFO: For registration and other information, go to https://bit.ly/3dAPOK6. To learn more about Viskontas, visit indreviskontas.com.