Music, Connection, and the Science of Time: An Interview with Natalie Hodges

Uncommon Measure by Natalie Hodges is the remarkable memoir of a young violinist’s struggle with performance anxiety, her exploration of music and the science of time, and her path towards creating a life that includes her love of music, even if it doesn’t look the way she originally imagined. This book resonated with me on so many levels, and I was honored to be able to talk to Natalie about all things music, science, and time!

 

Laura Mills: Well I just wanted to say first of all how much I loved Uncommon Measure! I picked up a pre-release copy on a whim and I was just so blown away by the subject matter, the prose, everything! 

Natalie Hodges: Oh that means the world to me, thank you so much!

 

LM: I love the way you interweave your scientific research into your own personal story of wanting to be a solo violinist and coming to terms with the idea that that might not pan out. Were you always interested in science or was that something that grew out of working on this project?

NH: I wasn’t that interested in science when I was younger, but my sophomore year of college I had to take a general education class on evolution, and we could research whatever topic we wanted for the final project. I thought, oh, I’ll do something related to music, and that was the first time I read about entrainment and Dr. Patel’s ASAP (Action Simulation for Auditory Prediction) theory, which is the idea that we can understand and participate in rhythm as a biological process. 

But it was actually working on the book itself, and wanting to talk about my own subjective experience with music, that really got me interested in the science. I wanted to know if my connection to music was a universal thing and if there was some way to ground it in reality and the body, rather than just a feeling I had. Like, what are we actually experiencing when we listen to and play music? And so that prompted me to reach out to different scientists to ask them, is this something that correlates with your research on the brain? 

 

LM: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in your research?

NH: I think it actually goes back to Dr. Patel’s ASAP theory, which I talk about in the first chapter of the book, because he posits that auditory perception is not just your body passively receiving signals. He found that the motor cortex in the brain is actually responsible for engendering our rhythmic sense, which is our innate ability to tap along to the beat of a song or feel a change in the music even before it happens. We don’t just receive signals through the ear – our brain actually works on those action potentials by signaling our muscles to, let’s say, clap our hands along with the beat. 

It was so surprising and encouraging to me because I think in music education there’s so much focus on reception. You’re taught to express your interpretation of a piece using your historical understanding of the composer, and you pick up the beat from a metronome. But to discover that the most fundamental element of music, rhythm, is rooted in this deeply primal part of your brain was revolutionary to me. It opened up a more creative and improvisatory way of thinking about music. 

 

LM: Yeah! I was so surprised to learn just how biologically programmed our sense of rhythm is. I love the way you talk about how time feels when you’re playing an instrument, the way music can seem to shrink or expand a singular moment in time. You have so many beautiful metaphors about that, like how you talk about time as a globe expanding around you as you’re playing, or even the shape of sound waves themselves. I was wondering how these visual metaphors came to you, or if they’ve always been a part of the way you think about music.

NH: I think the experience of music has always been pretty visual for me, but I kind of consolidated those metaphors before I even started working on the book. During my first couple years of college, I was at this point with the violin where I just felt totally desperate and I was coming to terms with, like, “oh maybe this isn’t going to work out.” I was working with my violin teacher Ying at the time and the way she taught would bring images to mind that I could use to stay in the present moment while I was playing, instead of being really cerebral about the notes or the technique. So they actually become something to hold onto in performances and auditions where I was really nervous. It would be like you’re in a shipwreck and the waves are crashing all around you but there’s a rock that you can cling to. Focusing on a singular image while you’re playing enables you to stop thinking so hard, and your body just does.

 

LM: It seems like much of your struggle with performance anxiety was actually a struggle to stay present with the music, and not get in your head about the places you thought you were going to mess up. I think so many people are searching for ways to be present, through meditation, etc, and I’m curious if writing this book changed your perception of what being “present” means. 

NH: Yes! I think something I realized towards the end of my music studies – when I was in the process of quitting violin and while I was writing this book, because those two things overlapped – was this idea of the path integral, which is a physics concept I learned about while researching time. It’s the idea that there’s an infinite number of possibilities before you in any given moment, so for instance during a violin performance you could have a terrible botch or you could play the piece even better than you thought you could, and that’s just how it’s supposed to exist in that particular performance.

Strangely enough the acceptance of that didn’t come with a feeling of relinquishing control, which is what I expected. In moments where I achieved a kind of presentness, there was always this feeling of resilience, where you’re trusting your body. And there’s a tremendous amount of control in that. For me that feeling was always enhanced by the presence of another performer, because there’s something to feed off of and somebody to communicate with. When you’re trying to communicate with someone you don’t get as lost in your own head. And those were the moments that felt really expansive.  

 

LM: I know you’re probably still figuring this out, so no pressure! But one of the things I resonated so deeply with in your book is the idea of having a lifelong dream. There are so many people who cling tightly to their dreams and ambitions, and whose lives end up going in a different direction. I’m curious what advice you have for someone going through something similar. 

NH: I wish I had better advice about how to pick a different path because everyone is like “You’ll be fine! You’ll figure it out!” and I’m like, “Will I?” *laughs*. I guess the advice I have relates more to looking back rather than looking forward, because that is going to be different for everyone.

It’s easy to look at all of the time and effort I put into becoming a professional violinist and think that it was wrong or false or that it wasn’t “real.” I felt like I had been on this false path and there was actually some other thing I should have been pursuing the whole time. But I think if you really love something and devote a lot of yourself to it there is tremendous beauty and reality in that, and just because you move on from it and do something else doesn’t mean it was a waste. To say “Oh I picked the wrong thing” undercuts what it meant to you.

For the time I was a musician, I was a musician. And that’s going to inform everything else that I choose to do from now on, maybe imperceptibly, but it is a kind of unconscious memory that I will carry with me into the future. At least for me there’s tremendous comfort in that. 

 

LM: And for what it’s worth, you wouldn’t have gotten to a place where you could write this beautiful book, if you hadn’t gone through everything that came before it. Final question: I’m curious if there’s a story behind the title, Uncommon Measure.

NH: The title stems from the phrase “common time,” which is another name for 4/4 time, the most-used time signature in music. I love that it’s called that because music is common time: for however long a performance lasts, whether we’re playing an instrument or we’re an audience member, we all share that moment together. Our brains and our bodies are entraining to the same rhythmic patterns and the same structural patterns. What a gift to be able to share that! We go through our whole lives longing for those moments of synchronicity and they’re so rare. We live in our own subjective time, but music takes us out of that and into a shared experience.

But as much as the book is about communion with other people, there’s also an asymmetry and imbalance which pushes us to desire that connectedness, so that’s part of where uncommon comes from.

And then I also wanted to get at this idea of music as a way to measure time. It’s a way you wouldn’t normally conceive of measuring time, but I think it can be, and I think the work of the different biologists and physicists I interview in the book points towards that. And of course “measure” is a musical term as well! *laughs* So that’s where Uncommon Measure came from – the conjunction of our shared experience of music and time. 

 

LM: I think that both music and books can bring people into those moments of synchronicity, so thank you for writing such an incredible memoir, and for talking with me about it! I can’t wait for more people to have the transformative experience of reading Uncommon Measure!

 

You can learn more about Natalie Hodges and her work at: https://www.nataliehodges.com

 

And don’t forget to order your copy of Uncommon Measure, coming out March 22, 2022!

Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time By Natalie Hodges Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781942658979
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Bellevue Literary Press - March 22nd, 2022

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