In my neuroscience research, I think a lot about “top-down” and “bottom-up” attention. Top-down attention is volitional; it reflects the things we choose to pay attention to. Bottom-up attention, on the other hand, refers to events in the world that grab our attention, outside of our control. As I listened to this piece, I became aware of how both kinds of attention were influencing the way I experienced the music. My first listen was dominated by the top-down: focusing on the complex violin runs in the tenor aria, analyzing how the lyrics of each chapter reflected the tone of the music.In later listens, I could begin to let bottom-up attention take over. My brain would latch onto a familiar melody and automatically follow it as it danced between voices and instruments, overlapping for a brief connection before moving along a new tangent. This comes through with particular impact across the four voices in the final chorus, each individually complex and yet interacting beautifully with one another. At some point, without trying to find it, my brain stumbled upon a central melodic motif, which had morphed from an expression of angst in the opening aria to one of weightlessness by the chorus.Beyond science and music, I think there’s a life philosophy in learning how to balance the top-down and the bottom-up. We hold onto our “top-down” goals and values to give us direction, but we must also remain open to the spontaneity of “bottom-up” opportunities—like learning to appreciate our first Bach cantata!

Justin Fleming
Postdoctoral Researcher