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If our advances in understanding brain modularity represent one of the great advances of the last decade, a couple of central mysteries remain. The first is the phenomenon of consciousness, which I don’t intend to take on today. For me, at least, the second mystery is music. In particular, how do we understand the evolution of the capacity to create, appreciate, analyze, and respond emotionally to music. It is likely that human music in some form evolved in parallel to the use of pictograms, the use of tools, and, presumably, the development of speech and piano-color1conscious awareness. Intense scientific research has been devoted to these eveolutionary topics (see Geary for instance). But music remains most puzzeling. One might imagine that musicality evolved along with speech. However, different parts of the brain are used for music and speech. Patients with aphasia due to damage to core speech areas may retain the ability to recognize songs, sing, and even produce lyrics (swearing is also preserved, interestingly). Dr. Kenichi Ikuta, a Japanese psychiatrist, used to work in a nursing home.He found that patients suffering from severe Alzheimer’s Disease who were  mute and failed to recognize family members are caregivers were able to participate in Karoke, carying the tune and adding lyrics. We know that music communicates more directly with the emotional parts of our brain. Perhaps it resonates with the most basic, central aspects of self, only partly available to consciousness.

When I started this blog, I set out to combine 3 of my major interests: photography, psychiatry, and the nature of time. So I have a confessionto make. Thoughtlessly, I ommitted the most important and overriding interest of all: music.  How could this have happened? I suppose that might be a question for my psychiatrist or music teacher. But music is not ery easy to talk about. It is much easier to make and listen to. Music spans regions of experience and of expression largely uninhabited by language. Language is but the crudest of tools to explore this intepersonal space.

Listen to Contrapunctus 1 of the “Art of the Fugue” by JS Bach played by a young Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist that one can only imagine had been designed by God for the expressed purpose of playing Bach.

Glenn Gould playing Bach

The Art of the Fugue was one of the last pieces composed by Bach and the end of his lifetime. By that time composing a fugue was a bit of an anachronism, and composers had moved on to more lyrical musical forms. Bach’s fugue is almost mathematical in construction. And yet this music is to my ear some of the most emotional ever written. There is hope, love, determination, sadness, and resignation. But what is breathtaking is the flow of complex feeling states, instant by instant, that weave about each other and produce an emotive conversation beyond all possible language.

We start with beauty and contentment. But what if … can we hope … but that could only mean … alas … the sky darkens … were it not for such beauty the longing would be intolerable … any yet …  hope, love  … and surely an end to all things … absolution and peace.

This is not meant to be poetry, just a sketch of one person on the adventure of listening to music at the height of human creativity. But I must point out the paradox of time and music. Lost in music, the  present moment blurs. If the piece is well known, each note is illuminated by those before and behind. As so at the heart of music is the paradox of time. The present note or chord is not music. Music arises with flow of time. And yet each moment is made of the past and depends on the past. It is made of the future and depends on the future. No moment could be without the whole. And so it is with our lives. The incapability of the moving present implies and is inseparable from all of time past and present. And so it is only in this unique present moment that we confront all of life, from the non-beginning to the non-ending.

Music gives wings to hearts so they can soar high above our heads.

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5 Comments

    • Steve Perrin
    • Posted December 26, 2008 at 5:45 pm
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    Music shares many qualities with speech prosidy, and exists apart from the referential meanings we associate with specific utterances. (See my blog on Music Consciousness, onmymynd.wordpress.com for more details.)

    As for Glenn Gould playing Bach, I say he doesn’t because JSB wrote for the harpsichord, not the keyboard, synthesizer, or piano. The sounds JSB heard in his consciousness were the sounds of the harpsichord, not the piano. GG plays a derivative, not the real thing.

    –Steve from Planet Earth

    • chaotos
    • Posted December 28, 2008 at 8:07 am
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    I enjoyed the post in your blog on Music Consciousness.

    I would recommend the book “Music and the Mind” by Anthony Storr. He explores many of the paradoxes regarding music vs speech. Also take a look at the article in the New Scientist by Josh McDermott. from a few months ago on the use of music by various biological species. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the scattering of musical ability between various species, and no correlation to the neurological development of speech.

    I have the impression you are not a Glenn Gould fan? Actually, clavichords were in common use in Bach’s day. The pianoforte had been invented and Bach had the opportunity to play on a number of these when he visited the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam where his son Carl Philip Emanuel was employed as harpsichordist to the king. (The king was fascinated by the new instrument and collected them as fast as they could be produced, resulting in complaints from other musicians). This visit resulted in the composition of “The Musical Offering” which was based on a subject Bach chose on which to improvise a fugue.

    • Steve Perrin
    • Posted December 30, 2008 at 7:03 am
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    Chaotos, I bow to your superior knowledge of these things. Again it is proved: I live in my head, not in the world. I am more a Wanda Landowska fan because she trained my ear concerning what to look for in Bach. She defined him for me. Interesting, I left out the organ in listing keyboard instruments–kind of a large oversight. I’ll check out the Storr book, Music and the Mind. That’s right down my alley. –Steve from Planet Earth

    • chaotos
    • Posted December 30, 2008 at 9:14 am
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    Thank you, Youtube. Here is a link to Wanda Landowska playing Bach. I was not familiar with her playing.

    You are correct that Glenn Gould imitated the harpischord in many ways in his piano renditions of Back. He _never_ used the sustain pedal. He minimized dynamic variations. I he used staccato extensively and frequently shifted from staccato to legato to as an expressive tool.

    His recordings of the Well Tempered Clavier are unsurpassed. Also, for fun, take a look at the video “32 Short Films about Glenn Gould”.

    • Steve Perrin
    • Posted December 30, 2008 at 3:02 pm
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    Chaotos–thanks for the Wanda link. And for the “32 Short Films about Glenn Gould” suggestion. I’ll keep my eye out for it. This thread is costing me money. I ordered three books on music and the brain from Am.com. If I’m going to open my mouth, I might as well know what I’m talking about. Thanks. –Steve from Planet Earth


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