Wagner Leitmotifs and the Optimistic Rat

Scientists are at it again.  They can now tell whether rats are optimists or pessimists.  Rats can’t answer a rat therapist’s questions, so how can scientists tell?  In a clever and amusing article in today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Robert Sapolsky explains how.  First, did you know that rats chirp when they feel pleased, sort of like cats purring I suppose?  You may not know this because it is inaudible to the human ear (not sure about cat's ears), but scientists have instruments that can record it.  Let rats play or mate with other rats, they chirp.  They will even press a lever to hear rat chirps.  And tickle them, they chirp.  Sorry, I haven’t read up on how to tickle a rat.

Now let’s stick with rats but change gears slightly.  Rats quickly learn to exhibit behaviors to seek rewards or to avoid actions that lead to pain, not unlike humans in this regard.  In a clever scientific experiment, rats learn that pressing lever number one when an A-sharp note is played gets them a reward and by pressing lever number two when A-flat is sounded they avoid a shock.  A-sharp, you can get a reward; A-flat, you can avoid a shock.  Easy.  But what if an A-natural is played, a note in between the A-flat and the A-sharp; what should they do? It turns out that some rats consistently choose lever one and some consistently choose lever two.  Some rats are optimistic about getting a reward and some are more worried about getting a shock.  I must point out that I can’t vouch for the validity of the results just from reading the WSJ article, either statistically or in terms of proper controls; for example, might have the rats who decided to avoid the shock been more sensitive to shocks or partially tone deaf?  Hopefully the scientists accounted for other possible causes for the results, but my real point to make here is that hearing musical sounds leads to expectations about what is going to happen.  Composers often change notes and scales to play on your musical expectations, but when we get to Wagner, it gets even more involved.

The Sapolsky article itself goes on to speculate on potential implications (and do keep in mind that those are speculations and not in any way proven, in particular as it relates to humans).  The pessimistic rats were more prone to depression.  It was found that tickling rats (chirping) made them more optimistic; so did antidepressants and enriching their surroundings, but stressing rats made them more pessimistic.  Sort of I think, good feelings build on good feelings and vice versa, and boredom doesn’t help.  I have made light of these studies as an amusement, but they are quite serious and important in their attempts to establish the relationships between behavior and emotions and their exact impact on health.

What does this have to do with Wagner?  Well, remember my earlier post with a brief discussion of leitmotifs, those charming little themes that foretold a presence in the story and elicited our associated remembrances and feelings?  I also talked about these in my reviews of the Ring Cycle.  Wagner was an innovator who employed these extensively to introduce characters, moods, and ideas.  So with Wagner, we hear something and we think, feel, or anticipate something.

Below is a Youtube video that presents movie themes as lietmotifs, to introduce high school students to the concept.  It is fun to see how many movies you can recall from the movie themes played, and it does point out the concept of musical cues to connect musical themes with expectations, a concept used in music long before Wagner:

Another, more in depth, explanation of leitmotifs and why Wagner was an innovator can be found in this Backstage Lincoln Center Youtube video:

I suppose that we now must expect that the emotions each leitmotif elicits in us may be somewhat different for different people, depending on whether they are more optimistic or pessimistic.  When you hear Siegfried’s theme do you remember his heroism and promise or his death and its implications for the world?  I first remember the feelings associated with his beauty and promise.  In fact, I also recall the beauty and grandeur of the Ring, and how lucky I feel to have seen it.  I’m an optimistic rat.  Opera helps.