What you play shapes who you are

Jonathan De Souza believes you are what you play.

Part of the Don Wright Faculty of Music’s Department of Music Research and Composition, De Souza explores how musical instruments shape a musician’s thinking about who they are and how they hear music.

“I’m looking to unpack a bit every day about a whole range of experiences around performing,” he said. “Merging music theory with cognitive science is about taking some of the insights into human experience and thought and using that to work through musical issues and musical questions we might have.”

He explained the instrument you choose to play shapes you and your experience from the first note – from motor skills to cognitive reactions.

As you practice the instrument over a lifetime, you’re making movements that correlate with particular sounds. Certain types of sounds, constrained by the instrument you play, shape your perception.

“It shapes the way you act, but also the way you hear things,” De Souza said. “It’s about exploring the connection between the ear and the hand, exploring how that is really fundamentally shaped by the instrument you play. Once you develop those connections, it can influence your perception. You’re hearing it in a different way. You can hear things in music from your own instruments that you can’t hear from another one.”

For instance, if you’re playing a piano piece with fast runs in it, there is no time to think, ‘I’m going to move my index finger, then my middle finger, then my third finger.’ If you have to think of consciously placing each note, you wouldn’t be able to play it, he said.

Because that movement can become, in a certain way, automatic, musicians can focus on the music and think about shaping the sound. In this instance, the musician’s body becomes the medium through which they shape the sound into an expressive performance.

“We don’t just experience music with our ears. We experience it with the whole body. And instruments can often come to feel like extension of our bodies,” De Souza said. “I’m trying to unpack certain things that have become automatic, things that have become so familiar they are invisible. I ask what it feels like to play musical instruments.

Less than six months ago, De Souza returned to Western where his education began. After earning his Bachelor of Music in 2005, the London native pursued graduate studies at Royal Holloway, University of London and the University of Chicago. He and his wife, Heather, are back to call London home.

De Souza admitted he, too, even fits into his research interest. He has been a violinist since the age of 3.

“When I hear Cape Breton fiddling, for example, my fingers will start to move,” he said. “I always hear violin music in a way that is different from a lot of other instruments, because the physicality of it is so much part of my life experience.

“I’m interested in how those patterns of interaction, between the body and the instrument, leave a trace in the sound of the music.”