Music and the Brain

The following audio files are the three parts that make up a fascinating WNYC Radio Lab production on the relationship between song and the human brain.

This first part, entitled "Behaves so strangely," deals with the relationship between languages and musical aptitude. It turns out that people who speak tone languages (languages in which the meaning of words is based not on the actual words but on their pitch, as in Mandarin or Vietnamese) have what's called 'perfect pitch': they can replicate and recognize certain sounds and pitches perfectly. And because children who learn such languages must be adept at differentiating sounds, it seems that they have an upper-hand on their atonal language speaking counterparts -us- when it comes to musical aptitude. So, while our children might be playing Mary had a little lamb, or some other boring tune, Chinese children are busting out some wicked Rockmaninov, or something else equally complicated.

The second part, "Sound as touch," explains how the brain makes sense of the auditory vibrations that cause the little bones in our ears to move, and how that very physical action of touch-at-a-distance actually produces the many different feelings that we can associate with our experience of music, whether they be happiness, frustration, anger, etc.

This part also deals with the universal phenomenon those of us averse to the idea of procreating have noticed repeatedly: when perfectly reasonable and respectable adults are in the presence of babies, they start babbling like total idiots ;-). This is the language of motherese, a musical/linguistic structure that seems to underlie all languages (not to be confused with Chomsky's concept of a universal grammar), and which serves to start the baby's educational process and parental emotional bonding.

The last part, probably the most interesting in this section, deals with the development our brains undergo as a result of experience. The case explored is that of the debut of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring': when it was first performed, the reaction was so strong that an unprecedented riot took place, where blood was drawn and even old ladies starting beating each other with canes (I would have liked to see that!), and Stravinsky had to run backstage and ended up crying like a baby. A year later the very same song was performed, and Stravinsky was carried out on the multitude's shoulders as a musical genius. This very same song that originally produced physical violence among its audience later made it into Disney's Fantasia! Why would this reaction change so drastically? Listen below to find out.

The third part, "Musical DNA," is also one of the most interesting parts of the show. This musician experiencing artist's block, David Cope, wrote a computer program, EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence), that analyzed the work of great composers and looked for trends buried within the structure of their songs, and then created suggestions for new songs based on the patterns it found. The results are amazing: absolutely beautiful melodies that actually mimic the style of the greats. If you didn't know the songs were composed by a computer, you would probably think you were listening to Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, etc.

My reaction to this is manifold. On the one hand, there is something in me that wants to believe that there is something inherently special in composers like Mozart, that their art is so unique it could not possibly be replicated by chance, and that I would be able to tell the difference between one of their actual works and something a rather simple and heartless computer program spits out. On the other hand, I do subscribe to a materialist computational conception of mind, so whether music is created by Mozart or by EMI, I'm reluctantly committed to the view that ultimately it was still created by a kind of computer, Mozart simply being one with greater complexity and algorithms that allowed for more creativity, not to mention a most interesting and charismatic personality.

What's your take on it? Are you both totally impressed and bothered simultaneously? I'd love to read some comments on this.
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