We’re sitting in the front row of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, listening to the musicians warm up for the dress rehearsal of tonight’s benefit concert starring John Williams, his movie music, and guest starring Steven Spielberg. Most people watch the musicians tinker, but we are noting details like the enormous screen hanging low over the conductor’s stand. That’s where Spielberg’s art and Williams’s art will integrate into something else altogether. Its where the rubber meets the road in our imagination. Or the shark bites the leg, as the case may be.

But why is it different when are senses integrate with our cognition to experience a story?

John Williams leads The Phoenix Symphony

Let’s start at the beginning—in the center of your brain—where consciousness is born. What is consciousness if not the first-person story of your life? Each scene, an edited vignette, that your attentional system cuts to highlight and enhance those events most important to you. As attention grabbing moments happen, signals flow backward down from your cognitive areas to your low-level sensory areas, suppressing everything that your cognition deems superfluous. And that’s what attention is, in the brain. When you integrate sight and sound with the emotions that inevitably bubble up during a movie—remember, art is best categorized as good only if it generates strong emotion—our brain experiences it as if it was our own life we were living. As if we were sitting at the perspective of the camera, watching Indiana Jones reach for his hat as the stone door almost crushes his arm. It is our cognitive systems that truly are processing and generating the emotions after all: those certainly don’t exist in the photons and sound waves that strike your head’s sensory apparatus. So we, and by “we” I mean our brains, and specifically the neurons in our brains that produce our conscious awareness of the aliens as they descend on Devil’s Tower to pick up Richard Dreyfuss, are critical components in the story as without us, it would not have any meaning.

Ok, so why come to the dress rehearsal, and then later tonight why return to enjoy the concert itself? Why not just go to the movies instead? Well, a new study by engineering researcher Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, suggests that music gets better when you actually see it played, and specifically when the conductor is a master performer. Tsay shows that professional musicians believe they rate each other based on the quality of the music alone, but that ratings based on sound alone are unreliable. Instead, when they rate musicians based on video footage, the ratings are more consistent, and rely on the expressiveness of the musician as they play. So that dimension of musical performance is indeed missing from a movie viewed without the live orchestra accompanying in the same room. And that’s why tonight will be so special.


After this evening’s concert: As promised, The Phoenix Symphony led by John Williams truly shined. The excitement and delight of having birth Williams and Spielberg there to discuss their interpersonal collaboration of making these movies made the music even better. So Tsay is right, I think. The visual presentation of the music is at least as important as the music itself, which, really, is what the movies have always been for, from the perspective of brain processing.