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 conscious 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.
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.