Sunday, January 06, 2008

Music and brains

Right now I am reading This is Your Brain on Music: the science of a human obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin. It is fabulously informative, interesting, and readable, and my only complaint is that it does not come with a CD. When he refers to some bit of music I am not familiar with, and writes something like, Dum dum dum da DA! this does not inform ENOUGH unless you have the music in your head. And while most of the music he refers to is music I know, not all of it is.

Oh, and I have another complaint about the book, or rather about one sentence in it. The writer knows a great deal about music but less about language, so that when he writes about a 'malformed sentence' and uses something like, The angry grape echoed insensitively (that was not the sentence he used, but it was something similarly nonsensical) as an example, he was wrong. That sentence he used was not malformed. It was formed perfectly, even though it did not make sense. It was semantically odd, but grammatically perfect. I would not have called it malformed.

He could have easily obtained a malformed sentence from me, if he had only asked. My students produce them all the time.

That is a minor quibble, however, and does not detract at all from the book overall. I am enjoying it enormously. Everybody who likes music should read it. (Is there anybody who does not like music of some description?)

What I have learned so far: If a tree falls in a forest and there is no living thing around to hear it, it does NOT make a sound.

You thought that was one of those great unanswered questions, didn't you? So did I, but apparently it is not. It has been answered. The answer is perfectly logical and has nothing to do with philosophy. If you want an explanation, read the book.

Oh, and I have also learned that our brains have a unique relationship with music. If you stick electrodes in your brain and play a pure note of, say, 440 Hz into your ears, your auditory cortex will fire neurons at exactly that frequency, causing the electrodes to emit electrical activity at 440 Hz. This means that if I couldn't hear what note you were listening to, but could read the electrical activity coming from the elctrodes, I would know what note you were hearing. I would be able to READ YOUR MIND.

Isn't that amazing?

I do not recommend that you try this at home, however.


Lia said...

I once read an article about the mathematics of music; how harmonics are built and how frequencies combine, etc. Then later I took a phsyics course where I learned about the physics of sound waves. And all of that served only to increase my appreciation for music. So maybe this book would too. I'll get to it. Thanks for passing on the recommendation!