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Reich on the brain: Minimalist music and your mind

Steve Reich (right) performing
Steve Reich (right) performing "Clapping Music"
Ian Oliver, Wikimedia Commons
Steve Reich (right) performing
Elizabeth (Lisa) Margulis, Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, in her lab
Martin Miller

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Minimalist composer Steve Reich is coming to LACMA's Bing Theatre next week, where the Lyris Quartet will perform his works Different Trains and Piano Counterpoint.

In the 60s, American composer Reich began changing Western music. He incorporated repetition and loops in a way that classical music typically didn't. Instead of relying on linear melodies, Reich's pieces pulse with subtle harmonies. Minimalist composers like Reich and his contemporaries Philip Glass and Terry Riley were changing what we think of as classical music. 

When I need to work, I put on Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. It helps me focus and think in a way other music just doesn't.

Lisa Margulis, who directs the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, uses behavioral studies and neuro-imaging to look at the way we engage with music and has a book coming out this fall called On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. Margulis says there's actually some science behind my experience.

"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," Margulis says. 

But it's not necessarily the case that one type of music makes you think better than another. Margulis cites one of the classic findings in Music Cognition, the so-called "Mozart Effect."

"So this is this paper that showed that if you play people recordings of Mozart -- two piano sonatas before they did a spatial reasoning task -- they score higher on the task. Now this finding wa interpreted to mean all of these grand things that it turned out not to mean at all. So for example it's not a Mozart effect, because you can get the same thing by playing people Lynyrd Skynyrd or Lucinda Williams or whatever you play them, as long as it's kind of positively valenced and arousing. So really it's an arousal effect." 

Whatever your listening preference, Margulis says what music does to your brain mostly comes down to arousal. She mentions a study conducted by Alf Gabrielsson and his colleagues in Sweden. Margulis says the researchers in Sweden "...examined thousands and thousands of responses to describe this kind of (musical) experience and found these interesting commonalities across them. Where often people had a sense of even an out of body experience, or of being transported and all of these things that seem to have to deal with a virtual embodiment of the sound. A sense of shared agency with what the sounds are doing." 

And while everyone's interaction with music is different, Margulis says minimalist music may just get the brain to react faster. "You really know how the music is going and can be right there with it and have this kind of unmediated experience with it that other music you might need to listen to several times before you could engage with it quite in that way," she says.

So maybe it's minimalist music that helps you think. Or maybe it's heavy metal. Whatever it is, it's a safe bet that your playlist is helping you think when you need it most.