Monday, February 3, 2014

How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time

A composer details how music works its magic on our brains.

ne evening, some 40 years ago, I got lost in time. I was at a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. During the second movement I had the unnerving feeling that time was literally grinding to a halt. The sensation was powerful, visceral, overwhelming. It was a life-changing moment, or, as it felt at the time, a life-changing eon.

It has been my goal ever since to compose music that usurps the perceived flow of time and commandeers the sense of how time passes. Although I’ve learned to manipulate subjective time, I still stand in awe of Schubert’s unparalleled power. Nearly two centuries ago, the composer anticipated the neurological underpinnings of time perception that science has underscored in the past few decades.

The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective—and an integral part of our lives. “For the time element in music is single,” wrote Thomas Mann in his novel, The Magic Mountain. “Into a section of mortal time music pours itself, thereby inexpressibly enhancing and ennobling what it fills.”
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We conceive of time as a continuum, but we perceive it in discretized units—or, rather, as discretized units. It has long been held that, just as objective time is dictated by clocks, subjective time (barring external influences) aligns to physiological metronomes. Music creates discrete temporal units but ones that do not typically align with the discrete temporal units in which we measure time. Rather, music embodies (or, rather, is embodied within) a separate, quasi-independent concept of time, able to distort or negate “clock-time.” This other time creates a parallel temporal world in which we are prone to lose ourselves, or at least to lose all semblance of objective time.

For the rest of the story: http://nautil.us/issue/9/time/how-music-hijacks-our-perception-of-time

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