The Science of Guitar Face
Guys make the funniest faces. We gnash our teeth, knit our brows, purse our lips, let our mouths hang open, contort our jaws, scrunch our eyes shut, stick out our tongues, breathe heavily, grunt and groan and moan and generally look ridiculous.
Yes, Guitar Face is an occupational hazard when you’re playing a really good guitar solo … what did you think we were talking about? Orgasms?
Funny you should ask. According to Edmonton neurologist Dr. Valerie Sim, there are “similar” parts of the brain activated when one is improvising music and when one is making love. Both acts require focus, an expenditure of energy, a release of inhibitions. Lose the flow and, well, you know … sorry, honey, this has never happened to me before. But when one is successful, the reward is freedom, bliss – and a great solo. The brain’s pleasure centres are triggered; one loses all sense of time and space in the joy of the moment of experiencing the finest that life can offer.
We’re still talking about music.
Dr. Sim, a researcher and associate professor of neurology at the U of A, calls herself “a scientist who practices medicine to support my music.” She’s a classically-trained violinist who plays in orchestras, musicals and in string quartets, but also has roots as a fiddler comfortable in kitchen party hootenannies, setting her apart from legit-trained musicians who fold when the sheet music’s taken away.
“You get the tingles,” Dr. Sim says of her personal experience. “That rush – people get that from certain pieces of music, certainly performing. I’m in an orchestra and there are certain pieces where all the strings come in and there are these amazing chords and you get this incredible rush. It’s not specifically an orgasm, but that’s why we talk about the reward centre and the endorphins. There’s an exhilaration and a rush, for certain. Yeah, I would say there are definitely going to be overlaps. Like eating chocolate covered strawberries.”
While improvising as a fiddler, she goes on, “I’ve had experiences performing where I really have lost awareness of anything else that’s going on, a loss of awareness of time where you just become the music. It’s a magical experience. That’s rare, to get into that zone.”
Aside from the inherent pleasure induced from music, it’s those moments of intense improvisation that seem to produce the best guitar faces. There is no simple explanation.
“The auditory cortex in humans is relatively small,” Dr. Sim says, “but it connects to so many different parts of the brain … the language, there’s the technical part, and the emotional part, memory. That’s the challenge,” she says, to figure out what’s going on in the brain. One would have to put a musician’s head into an MRI machine while they’re playing a great solo – and the guitar face would probably throw it off.
Juno-nominated jazz artist Jim Head has seen a lot of guitar face in his nine years as the head of guitar instruction at MacEwan University’s music program. He says he’s embarrassed about his own guitar face. He can barely bring himself to say why – i.e., because it looks like orgasm face.
The ultimate goal while soloing is freedom, of course.
“That’s the place we aspire to get to, where we’re free,” Head says. “I would say that those moments where I’m really, completely free are fewer than the ones somewhere in the middle. It’s like a big spectrum. In general, I’m at the point where I’m what the Indigo Girls said, ‘close to freedom.’ That’s what you strive for.”
Head says a lot of things go into his guitar face. There’s the physical exertion of playing the instrument itself. There’s the transporting emotion of the music. Jazz legend Keith Jarrett makes a lot of grunting noises when he solos, and has the best piano face in the business. On top of that, Head says, guitar face can express struggle. “There are insecurities, inhibitions, those things manifest, too,” he says. “It might all look the same, but there are different things going on. When something is difficult to play and you get tense, the tension manifests in the face.”
This wouldn’t be a problem for such a seasoned player – except for one thing: “Sometimes I can actually feel the fatigue,” Head says, “My face gets sore, and that’s a distraction.”
Head sees no apparent correlation between the quality of the solos and the guitar faces of the soloists, based on hundreds of guitar students he’s taught over the years. He says, “It’s all relative to the personality of the player.”
But being a rock star requires a certain kind of personality, doesn’t it? This might explain why this phenomenon seems to be such a guy thing, and why so many of the best known rock guitarists have such great guitar faces. They often play with their eyes closed to shut off any extraneous input from the occipital cortex so they may release their creative powers more freely – B.B. King, Pat Metheny, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, name your guitar hero, marvel at their guitar faces. What do they have in common? They all love to show off. It’s in their personalities. It can’t be coincidence that musicians who overplay are sometimes called “wankers.”
There’s some recent lore about the mysterious connection between mind and music. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a whole book about it, Musicophilia, exploring many different aspects of the theme through real life cases of brain dysfunction. He writes of the mystery, “This thing called ‘music’ … is in some way efficacious to humans, central to human life. Yet it has no concepts, makes no propositions, it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world.” And yet we can’t seem to live without it.
On letting go and going with the flow, jazz pianist Kenny Werner wrote a book called Effortless Mastery, in which he explains that the path to true creativity lies being “disconnected from the results.” You put heart and soul into creating the art in the moment – and then just let it go when it’s done. Don’t care what people think. Less inhibitions, better art.
The Guardian published an article early this year that deals with improvisation and the brain, written by American scientists Malinda McPherson and Charles Limb. They found that while the motor and language centres get amped up during improvisation, other brain networks get “turned down” – including self-criticism. “Research shows that the brain is shutting down your inhibitions during these creative moments. It appears that to be really creative, you need to avoid critiquing and controlling your actions, and instead, let yourself go in order to get into the moment, regardless of any mistakes.”
It’s just like what they say – there are no wrong notes in music, only opportunities. Kind of like sex.