We were honored to host a wonderful All Beethoven program with Steinway Artist, YOUNG-AH TAK , at our Jacobs Music West Chester location on Sunday.

Praised for her “winning combination of passion, imagination, and integrity” (New York Concert Review), and her “thrilling blend of fury and finesse” (San Antonio Express-News), pianist YOUNG-AH TAK enjoys a remarkable career that has taken her throughout the United States, Canada, Austria, Germany, Italy, Korea and Japan. She made her New York debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with the Juilliard Orchestra. Subsequently, she has appeared in the United States with the Imperial, Lansing, North Arkansas and Roanoke symphony orchestras and, abroad with Filharmonia Pomorska (Poland), Oltenia Philharmonic (Romania), and major orchestras in Korea including the Korean Symphony Orchestra. Other notable performances have been presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Jordan Hall in Boston, Columbia University, Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series in Chicago, Ravinia and Music@Menlo festivals. She has also appeared at major concert halls and international music festivals in her native Korea. Active as a chamber musician, Young-Ah Tak has collaborated with violinist Robert Mann, cellist Bonnie Hampton, the Ma’alot Quintet, and members of The Florestan Trio. She is also a passionate advocate of contemporary music, and has performed at Sequenza 21 and at the Piano Century concert series in New York City.

Ms. Tak received her Bachelor of Music from The Juilliard School; her Master of Music and Graduate Diploma from the New England Conservatory; and Doctor of Musical Arts from The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, studying principally with Leon Fleisher, Russell Sherman, Yong Hi Moon, Wha Kyung Byun, and Martin Canin. She has won top prizes in several international piano competitions. She currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Piano at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, and is an Artist-in-Residence at Southeastern University in Florida. Ms. Tak is a Steinway Artist, and her recordings are available from Albany Records and MSR Classics. She has recently recorded for Steinway’s Spirio catalogue, becoming a Spirio Recording Artist. [www.youngahtak.com]

 

young-ah-tak-1

 

 

We are pleased to share this article from American Senior Magazine…

The Enduring Legacy of Steinway & Sons

The Company’s 164-Year Production Of Pianos Is Alive And Well In New York City

article-img

When it comes to pianos, Steinway & Sons is synonymous with excellence. Whereas technological advancements in the last century have largely displaced craftmanship in America, production of the world’s greatest piano in Queens, New York, continues to honor the step-by-step design methods created by the company’s founder, Heinrich (Henry) Engelhard Steinweg.

Steinway pianos weren’t always manufactured in the US. The first Steinway piano, called the “kitchen piano,” was secretly built by Steinweg in 1826 in his kitchen in Seesen, Germany. Some of the practices Heinrich developed in his kitchen, such as the construction of a soundboard bridge made from a single piece of wood, are still carried out by employees in its factories today. Steinweg would construct 482 pianos by hand in his native Germany before emigrating to New York City in 1850 when he changed his name to Henry Steinway.After a few years working for other piano manufacturers to understand how business was done in the US, Steinway & Sons was officially formed in 1853.Piano number 483, the first piano built by Steinway in New York City, is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art today.

Steinway & Sons emerged as a leader in the piano making industry just before the Civil War. Henry was a pioneer in piano design, achieving the first of the company’s 126 patents in 1857. The Steinway piano, made of 85 percent wood, became the most beautifully constructed piano with an unrivaled sound quality. The company is also responsible for designing the 88 keys that most pianos have today. Each Steinway piano, which consists of more than 12,000 individual parts (3,000 of which are moving), is constructed primarily by hand, but in recent years, Steinway has incorporated cutting-edge technology without compromising the quality of its pianos. A Model D Steinway piano takes 11 months to produce from start to finish; although, the wood used to make the piano needs an additional two years to dry and age.

In the 1860s, Steinway & Sons was the largest employer in New York City. A decade later, Henry Steinway’s son William, the company’s first president, relocated most of the production facility to a 400-acre lot in Astoria, Queens. Steinway & Sons would later sell part of this land, which eventually became the site of LaGuardia Airport. Steinway also opened a factory in Hamburg in 1880, which still distributes pianos to Europe.

The family’s business strategy extended beyond design and quality. William made extensive contributions to the local community by developing Steinway Village, a “company town” to house its employees.  The company supplied public services to the community and had a post office, church, and library for its employees. It also provided English and German lessons to the workers’ children and founded one of the first kindergartens in America.

Today, the facility on Steinway Place produces approximately 1,100 grand pianos per year and is as much a museum as it is a factory. To tour the Steinway factory is like traveling through a lost era—many of the same practices and procedures developed in the 19th century still exist today. From the employees expertly bending the hard rock maple rims that give the grand piano its signature curve to the famous “bellymen” who glue the piano’s spruce soundboard by lying on their bellies, there is a deep appreciation, pride, and respect for the consistent craftsmanship and artistry in every Steinway created.

HERE ARE 10 REASONS

WHY THE PIANO IS A GREAT IDEA

1. SHARPENS THE INTELLECT Piano practice boosts cognitive and intellectual abilities by activating similar parts of the brain used in spatial reasoning.

2. DEVELOPS PASSION AND DILIGENCE Playing piano builds these good habits through dedication and goal-setting processes.

3. MAINTAINS AN AGING BRAIN’S HEALTH Research has shown that piano lessons for older adults have a significant impact on increased levels of human growth hormone, which slows the adverse effects of aging.

4. EXERCISES THE BODY Even though you’re sitting down, playing the piano is a workout all its own, improving fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Bringing music into your life is also proven to reduce heart and respiratory rates and cardiac complications, as well as to decrease blood pressure and increase immune response.

5. ENCOURAGES CREATIVITY Music affects our creativity through enhanced brain activity. This can inspire innovative solutions and evoke memories, emotions, and experiences.

6. STRENGTHENS MEMORY Studying piano has been shown to have a remarkable effect on memory—particularly with language.

7. ELEVATES MOODS Have you ever experienced a sensation of “chills” when listening to music? Playing piano can alter emotions through the release of serotonin and dopamine, “feel-good” neurotransmitters that provide the brain with positive emotions.

8. CALMS THE MIND Time spent playing piano improves mental health: People who make music experience less anxiety, loneliness, and depression.

9. FOSTERS COMMUNITY For more than 300 years, the piano has been a staple of the home, bringing people together and strengthening communities with the power of music.

10. BOOSTS CONFIDENCE Playing piano provides ample opportunities to bolster self-esteem. The ability to respond to constructive criticism—and learn from it—helps generate a positive outlook on life.

Cristina Patel is a writer in New York City, where she resides with her husband and three sons.

american-senior_logo

 

As the new year begins, we are pleased to share Peter Dobrin’s look back at the best of 2017 in classical music as shown in the Philadelphia Inquirer. We’re looking forward to all of the wonderful and varied musical experiences that will enrich us all in 2018!

Peter Dobrin’s best of 2017 in classical music

YEAREND2017-af
 View Gallery
 Buy Photo

Opera star Stephanie Blythe sings in the audience during an Opera Philadelphia show at TLA South Street with Dito van Reigersberg.

In the last year, Opera Philadelphia hosted a drag queen at TLA on South Street, the Philadelphia Orchestra played its first concert in which caretakers of autistic listeners wouldn’t have to worry about drawing death -stares if their charges made a little noise, and a composer from the Curtis Institute of Music has been working with inmates in Graterford Prison.

Even the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, long known for playing it straight when it comes to presentation, stretched its wings a bit in 2017, with a festival of last works and late style by composers.

In many ways, this was the year that Philadelphia decided classical music can define itself far more broadly — as a musical genre, as a social force, and in terms of who its audience is.

This is a positive development  — as long as classical leaders don’t place too heavy a burden on the art form. It is worrisome to see language about art changing lives on marketing materials from cultural groups. It is both an oversimplification and raises expectations too high. I worry, too, that if social mission and outreach become the primary driver of some arts groups, the quality of the art itself may begin to suffer.

But for the most part, Philadelphia’s classical community appears to be on to something big, a democratization long overdue (though there is surely more to do). Best-of lists are, of course, subjective. But this year, it was possible to come up with highlights that soar on multiple levels: innovation in format, creativity of venue, a reconsideration of who a worthy audience is, and a certain directness in the message of the music itself.

School District of Philadelphia and its arts partners. Some of the best performances this year have gone on backstage. For the first time in recent memory, there is momentum from arts groups behind the School District’s push to fortify music and art programs in the schools. Just to name a few of the more significant developments: Philanthropist Joseph Field has donated $10 million toward a new performing arts space at Central High. ArtistYear has greatly expanded the number of artists it places in school residencies. The Grammy Music Education Coalition has put some fund-raising muscle behind a larger $60 million “wish list” of programs the School District is developing to enhance music in the schools. And arts groups and specific schools are becoming much more sophisticated in how they work together to help fill the gaps in arts education.


Philadelphia Orchestra composer-in-residence Hannibal Lokumbe (left) plays impromptu trumpet with graduating senior Joshua Sims from the Creative Arts Performing High School in Camden.

Hannibal Lokumbe. It’s hard not to be awed by the presence of the Texas composer and trumpeter in Philadelphia this year. He’s become a kind of pop-up conscience, bringing Philadelphia Orchestra musicians and others into churches, schools, and prisons, as well as the traditional concert hall. “I want you to be part of this piece,” Hannibal told a group of prisoners at the Philadelphia Detention Center in Holmesburg in March before a string quartet played an Anne Frank-inspired work of his.

Hannibal told the story of his talking to a German farmer who remembered, as a child, seeing ashes rising from crematoriums and thinking “that it was like snow.” Hannibal gave the prisoners instructions to make a hissing sound at the end of the piece, an effect meant to emulate the air upon which human ashes were carried. It was one of those moments that was obviously powerful to everyone in the room, and maybe powerful to everyone in a different way. “He opened my eyes up to a lot of new things, things that I didn’t even know about myself,” said one inmate.


Benjamin Grosvenor

Rudolf Buchbinder and Benjamin Grosvenor. Strength of personality, we often hear, is in short supply in a cookie-cutter world. Not so here. These two piano recitalists — actually, Buchbinder’s April appearance was part of last season  — showed the enormous value of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society as our purest presenter of art for art’s sake and hedge against provincialism. Grosvenor is only 25 and making his mark all over the world, and it was clear from his expressive ear for Bach that we’ll be glad to have been let in early on his individualistic if judicious ways. Buchbinder, at the autumnal end of his career, was every bit the mercurial thinker, making the last movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, as I wrote at the time, about all kinds of things outside itself and inside us  — “about liberation, yes, but also struggle, triumph, and the beauty of taking big chances in life.”


Pianist Margaret Leng Tan

Margaret Leng Tan. The New York pianist reached into the body of a Steinway grand to manipulate prepared strings and make us question the definition of music. In the big Annenberg Court of the Barnes Foundation in November, Tan played Cage, Crumb, and Cowell, a trifecta of still-daring-sounding composers that lent considerable credibility to the Barnes’ involvement with new music. Tan was also an articulate spokeswoman for her repertoire, in concise comments to the audience. Why isn’t this persuasive ambassador here more often?

Dito and Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night. Opera Philadelphia’s inaugural move this season to a festival format, O17, grabbed national attention for its energy, innovation, and genre-bending premieres – and deservedly so. But, actually, Opera Philadelphia has been bending genres for several seasons. In February, it paired local drag queen Martha Graham Cracker (Dito van Reigersberg) with real-life opera star Stephanie Blythe. The resulting 90-minute show by Bearded Ladies Cabaret artistic director John Jarboe was smart and bubbly in all the right places. Best of all was the mash-up audience that filled TLA on South Street. For a night, anyway, Philadelphia managed to put what seemed like one of everyone into a single room – gay, straight, young, slacker, and establishment types – and the world was a loving, funny place.


Bruce Nauman’s “Contrapposto Studies, I through VII.”

Bruce Nauman. The strength the Philadelphia Museum of Art is building in Bruce Nauman is appealing in many ways, including the way the American artist’s works resonate with collections elsewhere in the building. The resonance was literal in Contrapposto Studies, I through VII, and a related work, Walks in Walks Out, which were on view through early 2017, and then acquired jointly by the museum with the Pinault Collection. The monumental sound-video installations in which Nauman himself becomes a proxy for the fragility of the human body had an “aleatory joy,” as I wrote at the opening, creating “the odd sensation that revelation, expressivity, and humanity can be found in unexpected places if you have the eye for it.”

Fabio Luisi: With Vladimir Jurowski out of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual rotation for the last couple of seasons and Simon Rattle an only occasional presence, Luisi has emerged as one of the most compelling regular visitors to the podium. His Franck D Minor Symphony in February had great majesty, and the spectrum of textures he drew from the ensemble in Weber’s Overture to Oberon was varied, adroit, and unusually sophisticated. Luisi — who returns in January for a program of Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn — had the orchestra in top form, proving that the right kind of leadership can still turn disparate personalities and views into a unified voice. Even in the concert hall.

Steinway Artist, YOUNG-AH TAK, will be performing an All-Beethoven Program at Jacobs Music of Westchester!

SAVE THE DATE

Sunday, January 14, 2018 – 2:00 pm

YOUNG-AH TAK, Pianist
Praised for her “winning combination of passion, imagination, and integrity” (New York Concert Review), and her “thrilling blend of fury and finesse” (San Antonio Express-News), pianist YOUNG-AH TAK enjoys a remarkable career that has taken her throughout the United States, Canada, Austria, Germany, Italy, Korea and Japan. She made her New York debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with the Juilliard Orchestra. Subsequently, she has appeared in the United States with the Imperial, Lansing, North Arkansas and Roanoke symphony orchestras and, abroad with Filharmonia Pomorska (Poland), Oltenia Philharmonic (Romania), and major orchestras in Korea including the Korean Symphony Orchestra.

Other notable performances have been presented at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Jordan Hall in Boston, Columbia University, Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series in Chicago, Ravinia and Music@Menlo festivals. She has also appeared at major concert halls and international music festivals in her native Korea.

Active as a chamber musician, Young-Ah Tak has collaborated with violinist Robert Mann, cellist Bonnie Hampton, the Ma’alot Quintet, and members of The Florestan Trio. She is also a passionate advocate of contemporary music, and has performed at Sequenza 21 and at the Piano Century concert series in New York City.

Ms. Tak received her Bachelor of Music from The Juilliard School; her Master of Music and Graduate Diploma from the New England Conservatory; and Doctor of Musical Arts from The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, studying principally with Leon Fleisher, Russell Sherman, Yong Hi Moon, Wha Kyung Byun, and Martin Canin. She has won top prizes in several international piano competitions. She currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Piano at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, and is an Artist-in-Residence at Southeastern University in Florida. Ms. Tak is a Steinway Artist, and her recordings are available from Albany Records and MSR Classics. She has recently been invited to record for the Steinway’s Spirio catalogue, becoming a Spirio Recording Artist. [www.youngahtak.com]

There is no charge for this event. Limited Seating. Please RSVP here or call 484-723-2700.

Jacobs Music of West Chester, 1572 Wilmington Pike, West Chester, PA 19382

We enjoyed hosting a terrific workshop at Jacobs Music of Ephrata last Saturday, led by Matt Hyzer on “Jazz and Pop Piano 101”

The workshop was well attended with some traveling quite a distance to be with us. The participants enjoyed interacting with Matt and took away lots of ideas to to build upon and develop.

Thank you, Matt Hyzer!

ephrata-matt-heizer-workshop-2

 

We are pleased to share this article from the December 4th edition of THE CENTURION, the student newspaper of Bucks County Community College and proud to have partnered with BCCC in making this dream a reality…

Music Professor Succeeds in Making Bucks an “All Steinway School”

Left to right: Professor Ferdinand, music program chair Steven Bresnen, and Arts Department Dean John Matthews

Left to right: Professor Ferdinand, music program chair Steven Bresnen, and Arts Department Dean John Matthews

Brandon Bailey

According to the press release on the school’s website, Bucks President Stephanie Shanblatt stated, “Our goal is to seek excellence in everything we do. Partnering with Steinway and Sons in this endeavor continues our college along that path.”

Steinway Pianos have been hand crafted since 1853 and have set a standard for sound, touch, beauty, and most importantly; investment value. The press release also included a statement from the head of the Music Area of the Arts Department, Professor Steven Brensen, saying, “By investing in Steinway pianos – high-quality instruments that are prized for their superior craftsmanship and design, reliability, longevity, and persistent value over time – Bucks has provided its music program, students, and faculty with a product of exceptional pragmatic and artistic merit.”

The driving force behind the acquisition of these world-class pianos would be none other than Associate Professor Edward Ferdinand. Ferdinand trained on Steinways at the Curtis Institute of Music and the Julliard School and would know more about these instruments than anyone else at the college.

He began his efforts in bringing these pianos to Bucks back in 2009 by working with the Bucks Foundation. He wrote grants and launched a fundraising campaign to bring about this distinguished honor.

“The first grant that we had ever received was from the Presser Organization for $50,000. After that, we received another grant for $15,000,” said Ferdinand. “Not only did we receive these grants, but we also asked for donations from Alumni and friends as well.”

When asked what is so special about these pianos, Ferdinand said, ”The original pianos in this school were between 40 and 50 years old. Their sound boards were just about shot and they didn’t hold tune very well anymore. The Steinway’s are much more stable.”

Ferdinand owes a lot of gratitude toward Bucks Foundation members Tobi Bruhn and Jean Homes. “Those two were a huge help to me throughout this entire campaign and for that, I am very grateful,” said Ferdinand.

The designation of an All-Steinway School represents the dedication that this institution and appreciation for the Arts Department. In celebration of this achievement, the college held “Unrivaled Sound: A Celebration of Steinway Excellence” this past May 6 in the Zlock Performing Arts Center at the Newtown Campus. This performance not only included students performing on the new Steinways, but faculty, alumni, and guests as well.

The acquisition of the Steinway pianos puts the music program at Bucks on a whole new level. Not only that, but it attracts more and more Steinway performers to the school as well. “I am thrilled that this project I began eight years ago has become a reality for our students and faculty,” said Ferdinand. “I’m completely thrilled not just for my own sake, but for the sake of students and faculty as well.”

An interesting and thought-provoking article from Aeon.Co

aeon-co-logo

Music is not for ears

We never just hear music. Our experience of it is saturated in cultural expectations, personal memory and the need to move

is director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, a trained concert pianist, and the author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (2013).

3,200 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

SYNDICATE THIS ESSAY

When have you experienced music in such a way that it was more than just sound?

 37Responses

It’s easy to think about music as just a sequence of sounds – recorded and encoded in a Spotify stream, these days, but still: an acoustic phenomenon that we respond to because of how it sounds. The source of music’s power, according to this account, lies in the notes themselves. To pick apart how music affects us would be a matter of analysing the notes and our responses to them: in come notes, out tumbles our perception of music. How does Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah work its magic? Simple: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…

Yet thinking about music in this way – as sound, notes and responses to notes, kept separate from the rest of human experience – relegates music to a special, inscrutable sphere accessible only to the initiated. Notes, after all, are things that most people feel insecure about singing, and even less sure about reading. The vision of an isolated note-calculator in the brain, taking sound as input and producing musical perceptions as output, consigns music to a kind of mental silo.

But how could a cognitive capacity so removed from the rest of human experience have possibly evolved independently? And why would something so rarified generate such powerful emotions and memories for so many of us?

In fact, the past few decades of work in the cognitive sciences of music have demonstrated with increasing persuasiveness that the human capacity for music is not cordoned off from the rest of the mind. On the contrary, music perception is deeply interwoven with other perceptual systems, making music less a matter of notes, the province of theorists and professional musicians, and more a matter of fundamental human experience.

Brain imaging produces a particularly clear picture of this interconnectedness. When people listen to music, no single ‘music centre’ lights up. Instead, a widely distributed network activates, including areas devoted to vision, motor control, emotion, speech, memory and planning. Far from revealing an isolated, music-specific area, the most sophisticated technology we have available to peer inside the brain suggests that listening to music calls on a broad range of faculties, testifying to how deeply its perception is interwoven with other aspects of human experience. Beyond just what we hear, what we see, what we expect, how we move, and the sum of our life experiences all contribute to how we experience music.

Subscribe to Aeon’s Newsletter

If you close your eyes, you might be able to picture a highly expressive musical performance: you might see, for instance, a mouth open wide, a torso swaying, and arms lifting a guitar high into the air. Once you start picturing this expressive display, it’s easy to start hearing the sounds it might produce. In fact, it might be difficult to picture these movements without also imagining the sound.

Or you could look – with the volume muted – at two performances of the same piano sonata on YouTube, one by an artist who gesticulates and makes emotional facial expressions, and the other by a tight-lipped pianist who sits rigid and unmoving at the keyboard. Despite the fact that the only information you’re receiving is visual, you’ll likely imagine very different sounds: from the first pianist, highly expressive fluctuations in dynamics and timing, and from the second, more straightforward and uninflected progressions.

Could it be that visual information actually affects the perception of musical sound, and contributes substantially to the overall experience of a performance? Numerous studies have attempted to address this question. In one approach, the psychologist Bradley Vines at McGill University in Canada and colleagues video-recorded performances intended to be highly expressive as well as ‘deadpan’ performances, in which performers are instructed to play with as little expressivity as possible. Then the researchers presented these recordings to the participants, either showing them just the video with no sound, or playing them just the audio with no video, or playing them the full audiovisual recording – or, in a particularly sneaky twist, playing them a hybrid video, in which the video from the expressive performance was paired with the audio from the deadpan performance, and vice versa.

It turns out that participants tend to describe as more expressive and emotional whichever performance is paired with the more expressive video – rather than the recording with the more expressive sound. In a separate experiment, the psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay at University College London showed that people predicted the winners of music competitions more successfully when they watched silent videos of their performances than when they merely heard the performances, or watched the video with the sound on.

Pairing minor (sad) audio with major (happy) video leads to the minor music being rated as happier

Music, it seems, is a highly multimodal phenomenon. The movements that produce the sound contribute essentially, not just peripherally, to our experience of it – and the visual input can sometimes outweigh the influence of the sound itself.

Visual information can convey not only information about a performance’s emotional content, but also about its basic structural characteristics. Work by the psychologists Bill Thompson at Macquarie University in Sydney and Frank Russo at Ryerson University in Toronto showed that people could judge the size of an interval being sung even when they couldn’t hear it – merely by watching facial expressions and head movements. When video of a person singing a longer interval was crossed with audio from a shorter one, people actually heard the interval as longer. Similarly, when Michael Schutz and Scott Lipscomb, then both at Northwestern University in Illinois, crossed video of a percussionist playing a long note with audio from a short note, people actually heard the note’s duration as longer.

Multisensory integration at this basic level feeds into some of the higher-level effects of vision on perceived emotion. For example, pairing audio of a sung minor interval, typically heard as sad, with video footage of someone singing a major interval, typically heard as happy, leads to the minor interval being rated as happier.

Amusical experience is more than an audiovisual signal. Maybe you’re trying out a new band because your best friend recommended it, or because you’re doing your parent a favour. Maybe you’re experiencing a concert in a gorgeous hall with a blissed-out audience, or maybe you’ve wandered into a forlorn venue with a smattering of bored-looking folks, all of whom seem to have positioned themselves as far from the stage as possible. These situations elicit markedly different sets of expectations. The information and inferences brought to the concert can make or break it before it even starts.

Joshua Bell is a star violinist who plays at the world’s great concert halls. People regularly pay more than $100 per ticket to hear him perform. Everything about the setting of a typical concert implies how worthy the music is of a listener’s full attention: the grand spaces with far-away ceilings, the hush among the thousand attendees, the elevation of the stage itself. In 2007, a reporter from theWashington Post had an idea for a social experiment: what would happen if this world-renowned violinist performed incognito in the city’s subway? Surely the exquisiteness of his sound would lure morning commuters out of their morning routine and into a rhapsodic listening experience.

Instead, across the 35 minutes that he performed the music of Bach, only seven people stopped for any length of time. Passers-by left a total of $32 and, after the last note sounded, there was no applause – only the continued rustle of people hurrying to their trains. Commentators have interpreted this anecdote as emblematic of many things: the time pressures faced by urban commuters, the daily grind’s power to overshadow potentially meaningful moments, or the preciousness of childhood (several children stopped to listen, only to be pulled away by their parents). But just as significantly, it could suggest that the immense power of Bell’s violin-playing does not lie exclusively in the sounds that he’s producing. Without overt or covert signalling that prepared them to have a significant aesthetic experience, listeners did not activate the filters necessary to absorb the aspects of his sound that, in other circumstances, might lead to rhapsodic experiences. Even musicianship of the highest level is susceptible to these framing effects. The sound just isn’t enough.

People liked the music more and were more moved by it when they thought it had been written for a happy reason

Other studies also suggest a powerful role for context in the experience of music. In 2016, with my colleague Carolyn Kroger at the University of Arkansas, we exposed participants to pairs of performances of the same excerpt, but told them that one was performed by a world-renowned professional pianist and the other by a conservatory student: people consistently preferred the professional performance – whether they were listening to the professional, to the student, or had in fact just heard the exact same sound played twice. And, in another factor unrelated to the sound itself, listeners tended to show a preference for the second excerpt that they heard in the pair. When these two factors coincided – when the second performance was also primed as professional – their tendency to prefer it was especially strong. My own subsequent neuroimaging work using the same paradigm revealed that reward circuitry was activated in response to the professional prime, and persisted throughout the duration of the excerpt; this finding is in line with previous neuroimaging studies that demonstrated the sensitivity of the reward network to contextual information, affecting or even improving the pleasantness of a sensual experience.

It’s not only our sense of the quality of a performance that is manipulable by extrinsic information; our sense of its expressive content can also vary. In a recent study, we told people that we had special information about the musical excerpts that they were going to hear: in particular, we knew something about the composer’s intent when writing it. Unbeknown to the participants, we created the intent descriptions so that some were highly positive, some highly negative, and some neutral. For example, we could say that a composer wrote the piece to celebrate the wedding of a dear friend, to mourn the loss of a friend, or to fulfil a commission. We scrambled the description-excerpt pairings so that the same excerpts were matched with different descriptions for different participants. In each trial, participants read the composer-intent description, listened to the excerpt, and answered questions about it.

When told that the excerpt had been written for some positive reason, people heard the music as happier, but when told that the excerpt had been written in a negative circumstance, they heard it as sadder. Recasting the emotional tenor of an excerpt had important consequences for the listeners’ experience of it. People liked the excerpts more and were more moved by them when they thought they had been written for a happy reason (intriguingly, another part of the same study showed that people liked and were more moved by poetry when they thought it had been written for a sad reason). The social and communicative context within which a performance occurs – rudimentarily approximated-by-intent descriptions in this study – can imbue the same sounds with very different meanings.

The right music can get a roomfull of people dancing. Even people at classical concerts that discourage overt movement sometimes find it irresistible to tap a finger or foot. Neuroimaging has revealed that passive music-listening can activate the motor system. This intertwining of music and movement is a deep and widespread phenomenon, prevalent in cultures throughout the world. Infants’ first musical experiences often involve being rocked as they’re sung to. The interconnection means not only that what we hear can influence how we move, but also that how we move can influence what we hear.

To investigate this influence, the psychologists Jessica Phillips-Silver and Laurel Trainor at McMaster University in Ontario bounced babies either every two or every three beats while listening to an ambiguous musical excerpt that was capable of being understood as characterised by perceived accents every two or three beats. During this exposure phase, babies were hearing the same music, but some of them were being moved in a duple pattern (every two beats, or a march) and some of them were being moved in a triple pattern (every three beats, or a waltz). In a later test phase, babies were presented with versions of the excerpt featuring added accents every two or every three beats, translating the emphasis from the kinaesthetic to the auditory domain. They listened longer to the version that matched the bouncing pattern to which they had been exposed – babies who had been bounced every two beats preferred the version with a clear auditory duple meter, and babies who had been bounced every three beats preferred the version with the triple meter. To put it another way, these infants transferred the patterns they had learned kinaesthetically, through movement, to the patterns they were experiencing auditorily, through sound. What they perceived in the sound was framed by the way they had moved.

The findings paint an embodied picture of music-listening: the way you physically interact with music matters

Testing whether this transfer from movement to sound occurs in adults required a few modifications to the study design – it’s not as easy to pick up adults and bounce them. Instead, adults were taught how to bend their knees every two or three beats as a musical excerpt played. And rather than devising a listening-time paradigm to infer aspects of perception from preverbal infants, researchers simply asked participants which of two excerpts sounded more similar to the one in the exposure phase. Participants chose from versions of the excerpt to which auditory accents had been added every two or three beats. Mirroring results with the infants, the adults judged the version to be most similar when it featured the accent pattern that matched the way they’d moved. The effect persisted even when participants were blindfolded while moving, demonstrating that perception could transfer from movement to sound even in the absence of a mediating visual influence. Movements much subtler than full-body bounding can also influence auditory perception. Participants asked to detect target tones occurring on the beat from within a series of distractor tones performed better when they tapped a finger on a noiseless pad than when they listened without tapping.

Together, these findings paint an embodied picture of music-listening, where not just what you see, hear and know about the music shapes the experience, but also the way you physically interact with it matters as well. This is true in the more common participatory musical cultures around the world, where everyone tends to join in the music-making, but also in the less common presentational cultures, where circumstances seem to call for stationary, passive listening. Even in these contexts, when and how a person moves can shape what they hear.

The musical vocabularies and styles that people hear while growing up can shape the structures and expressive elements they are capable of hearing in a new piece. For example, people show better recognition memory and different emotional responses to new music composed in a culturally familiar style, as compared with new music from an unfamiliar culture. But it’s not just previous musical exposure that shapes their perceptual system: the linguistic soundscape within which a person is raised also reconfigures how they orient to music.

In languages such as English, the pitch at which a word is pronounced doesn’t influence its dictionary meaning. Motorcycle means a two-wheeled vehicle with an engine whether I say it in a really high or really low voice. But other languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Thai, are tone languages: when Chinese speakers say ma with a high, stable pitch it means ‘mother’, but if they say it with a pitch that starts high, declines, then goes back up again, it means ‘horse’. The centrality of pitch to basic definitional content in these languages means that tone-language speakers produce and attend to pitch differently than non-tone-language speakers, day in and day out over the course of years. This cumulative sonic environment tunes the auditory system in ways that alter basic aspects of music perception. Speakers of tone languages, for example, detect and repeat musical melodies and pitch relationships more accurately than non-tone language speakers.

Culture and experience can change how music is heard, not just how people derive meaning from it

The psychologist Diana Deutsch at the University of California, San Diego concoctedtritones (two pitches separated by half an octave) using digitally manipulated tones of ambiguous pitch height. People heard these tritones as ascending or descending (the first note lower or higher than the second) depending on the linguistic background in which they had been raised. Speakers of English who grew up in California tended to hear a particular tritone as ascending, but English speakers raised in the south of England tended to hear it as descending. Chinese listeners raised in villages with different dialects showed similar differences. A striking characteristic of this ‘tritone paradox’ is that listeners who hear the interval as ascending generally experience this upward motion as part of the perception, and have trouble imagining what it would be like to experience it the other way, and vice versa for listeners who hear it as descending. The effect influences what feels like the raw perception of the sound, not some interpretation layered on later. Culture and experience can change how music is heard, not just how people derive meaning from it.

Music’s interdependence on so many diverse capacities likely underlies some of its beneficial and therapeutic applications. As the late neurologist Oliver Sacks showed in Musicophilia (2007), when a person with dementia listens to music from her adolescence, she can become engaged and responsive, revealing the extent to which these tunes carry robust autobiographical memories.

Music cannot be conceptualised as a straightforwardly acoustic phenomenon. It is a deeply culturally embedded, multimodal experience. At a moment in history when neuroscience enjoys almost magical authority, it is instructive to be reminded that the path from sound to perception weaves through imagery, memories, stories, movement and words. Lyrics aside, the power of Cohen’s Hallelujah doesn’t stem directly from the fourth, the fifth, or even the minor fall or the major lift. Contemporary experiences of the song tend to be coloured by exposure to myriad cover versions, and their prominent use in movies such as Shrek. The sound might carry images of an adorable green ogre or of a wizened man from Montreal, or feelings experienced at a concert decades ago.

Despite sometimes being thought about as an abstract art form, akin to the world of numbers and mathematics, music carries with it and is shaped by nearly all other aspects of human experience: how we speak and move, what we see and know. Its immense power to sweep people up into its sound relies fundamentally on these tight linkages between hearing and our myriad other ways of sensing and knowing.