Thinking Out Loud | How We Learn

By Cheryl Ossola

Thanks to Igor Stravinsky, I have a fresh perspective on learning. I’ve read a lot about learning styles and teaching methods, but none of it touched on the relationship between learning and receptivity that a fascinating show called “Sound as Touch” did. A Radio Lab show, it was broadcast by WNYC, New York Public Radio, in April 2006. (Listen to it at The show made me think, but it wasn’t until San Francisco Ballet’s repertory season last spring that I saw firsthand how our ability to embrace the unfamiliar depends on biological, and thus emotional, readiness.

What does a show called “Sound as Touch” have to do with learning? The answer is that it explores how sound, specifically music, generates emotion, and emotion has a lot to do with being able to learn. That might seem obvious, but what isn’t so apparent is the fact that those emotions are governed by biochemistry. The neuroscientists on the show go into detail about sound perception at the cellular level, but they illustrated the concept with a fascinating story about the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

You might know that at the work’s premiere in Paris (as the score for Nijinsky’s ballet of the same name for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), on May 29, 1913, the audience rioted. Little old ladies were beating each other with canes, and Stravinsky had to take refuge backstage. Simply put, they couldn’t make sense of what they were hearing. (Nijinsky’s unconventional choreography and the ballet’s shocking story line might have had something to do with it, too.) Listeners were accustomed to the familiar patterns and consonant sounds of Baroque and classical music, which their brains had no trouble decoding. Sound enters our ears as little pulses of electricity; when they have an even, regular rhythm, we perceive them as pleasing. But when they are irregular and unpredictable we usually interpret them as sounds that we don’t like.

Stravinsky’s music was different, rhythmically complex and full of dissonant sounds like minor seconds. And all those new sounds made the audience literally go a little crazy. (You’d have to listen to the part about dopamine release and schizophrenia, which I won’t go into here.) But less than a year later, when Rite of Spring was again performed in Paris (without the ballet), the audience loved it and Stravinsky was hailed as a hero. And 26 years later, the same music that had caused blood to be shed at its first hearing was deemed suitable for children and included on the soundtrack for Disney’s Fantasia.

Stravinsky’s music was different, rhythmically complex and full of dissonant sounds. And all those new sounds made the audience literally go crazy.

What happened? The audience could respond favorably the second time because the music was no longer so grossly unfamiliar. Their brains could break it down into patterns and translate it into something recognizable. And that’s where the connection to learning comes in. To learn something, we must be able to receive and interpret the information.

Here’s what made this concept hit home for me. In 2006 San Francisco Ballet performed William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite, in which the fire curtain slams down five times, a lone woman directs the ensemble with semaphoric arm movements, and the stage lights shine into the audience’s eyes. Quite a few people walked out mid-performance. Two people I know said they hated it; one claimed it gave her a headache. Then, in 2007, SFB again performed Artifact Suite, and the difference in audience response was remarkable. Few if any people left, and the two people who had said they hated it were raving about how much they loved it. Not only that, audiences also responded positively to another extremely edgy ballet that season, Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden, which I don’t believe would have happened had Artifact Suite not paved the way. I couldn’t help but think about Rite of Spring and the power of familiarity to change people’s attitudes toward something they had previously rejected.

What does this have to do with teaching dance? Understanding that humans are hard-wired to search for patterns, to translate the unfamiliar into the familiar, might help teachers accept the need to repeat new material, perhaps more often than they’d like. So be patient the next time you present something new and are met with stony expressions and cries of “I hate this!” It might take more than one encounter before students can receive, interpret, and respond to it. So chalk it up to biochemistry, listen to Rite of Spring, and give silent thanks to Stravinsky. And remember that what was a disaster in 1913 was considered a masterpiece a year later, and still is today.