Tag Archives: Science

Sound and Spirit

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is considered the most spiritual of the arts. The designation refers equally to music’s substance and impact. Music is revelation: it manifests in ethereal air. Music is boundless: it transcends physical constraints. Music is invisible: its essence cannot be seen. Music reaches inward: it communes with the inner life. Music conjures: it stirs vivid memories and associations. Music alters: it changes moods and frames of mind. These observations point to the music’s immateriality. Although it abides by the laws of physics and follows a traceable line of causation, it somehow extends beyond them.

Music embodies the fundamental meaning of spirituality: “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Unlike the visual arts, which manipulate tangible matter, music lacks a physical presence. It is force without mass.

This is not to suggest supernaturalism, which is often confused with spirituality. The life of the spirit is not dependent upon an otherworldly plane. From a scientific perspective, everything—including sound—is part of the natural world. The separation of music from material existence is more perception than objective fact. Just as science has demystified the once-taken-for-granted duality of soul and body, the perceived disconnect between music and material reality would not pass scientific muster. Yet, insofar as art is expression and impression, the feeling of otherness is enough to sustain the mystery of music.

Musical responses can be attributed to chemical and neurological mechanisms. For example, dopamine release is the primary inducement of musical “highs.” But, just as scientific explanations of why and how we come to believe in the supernatural do not prevent people from doing so, laboratory studies of music’s effect on the brain do not compel us to pause, analyze, and dismiss musical-spiritual sensations as they occur. We are wired to feel and conceive of music the way we do.

How can these rational/scientific and non-rational/spiritual views be reconciled? One way is by appreciating music’s ability to meet incorporeal needs distinct from the material necessities of food, shelter, clothing, possessions, and the like. The fact that music is a natural phenomenon (like everything else) does not make it any less spiritual. What music accomplishes more than the other arts is a sense of going outside the measurable world, even while being a part of it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Speech as Byproduct

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human beings like to celebrate the uniqueness of our species. Of all the terrestrial creatures, we are the ones who have built civilizations, developed science and technology, invented philosophy and sport, produced art and medicine. Exactly how we attained the presumed mantle of superiority is not as clear. The usual list of explanations leads us to similarities with other animals, rather than to exclusively human traits.

For instance, our “big brains” have roughly the same brain-to-body mass ratio as mice, and are outsized by dolphins and some small birds. Tool use is present among various animals, including primates, elephants, ants, wasps, certain birds and some octopi. We share an opposable thumb with koalas, opossums, several primates, certain frogs, and a few dinosaurs. We are not the only animals to walk on two legs—just look at any bird. Even the gene largely responsible for language (FOXP2) is found in other species, like chimpanzees and songbirds, albeit in different variants.

It could be that what makes us human is not one of these traits, but all of them in combination. For example, the anatomical emergence of the opposable thumb facilitated tool culture, and large brains enabled the development of seemingly endless devices, including written language. Indeed, many scientists contend that language advancement—built from the convergence of other human characteristics—is what makes us unique.

Dr. Charles Limb recently challenged this conventional view. Limb, an otolaryngological surgeon and saxophonist, was intrigued by musical conversations that take place between improvising jazz players. Using an MRI machine, he and a team of researchers mapped the “jazz brain.” First, they instructed a musician to play a memorized piece of music. Next, they asked him to improvise with another musician, who played in another room. Their findings show that collaborative improvisation stimulates robust activity in brain areas traditionally linked with spoken language. Moreover, it appears that the uninhibitedness and spontaneity of improvisation is closer to a dream state than to self-conscious conversation.

As a mode of communication, music is more complex and intuitive than the comparatively straightforward systems of verbal and written language. For jazz improvisers, the back-and-forth is both plainly understood and impossible to put into words. The fact that the brain can process this acoustic information, which is far more complicated than speech, suggests that musical capacity—not language—is the distinctive human-identifying trait.

To be sure, “musicality” is also present in songbirds, whales and a handful of other animals. But the complexity of music perception in humans is so advanced that modern science cannot fully comprehend it. Limb says it best: “If the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it’s odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech. So a brain that evolved to handle musical communication—there has to be a relationship between the two. I have reason to suspect that the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music and speech is a happy byproduct.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Song to Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The acquisition of language in human infants usually begins with song. Mothers and other caregivers address infants in a singsong version of the native tongue, known variously as infant-directed speech, musical speech, and motherese. Pitch contours are exaggerated, phrasings are overemphasized, and stress patterns are overstated. Sounds are repeated, vocal pitch is high, vowels are exaggerated, tones range widely, and tempo is relaxed. More than the vocabulary itself, these extra-linguistic qualities set the foundation for language development.

The central ingredients of infant-directed speech, pitch and rhythmic structure, are also the essential elements of song. It is thus no coincidence that the singing of lullabies and playsongs is also a human universal. Such songs are a natural outgrowth or twin sibling of motherese, and, like musical-speech, their impact is more emotive than linguistic. Long before the child understands the meaning of words, she detects and imitates these vocal patterns of expression. Singing comes before speech.

These observations are familiar to anyone with child-rearing experience. They are about as revelatory as a step-by-step description of diaper changing. However, new research suggests that the connection between song and speech development runs deeper than previously intuited.

A massive study involving over a hundred international researchers, nine supercomputers, and the genomes of forty-eight species of birds recently culminated in the publication of twenty-eight articles. Among the findings are genetic signatures in the brains of songbirds that correspond to the genetics of human speech.

Humans and songbirds undergo a similar progression from “baby talk” to complex vocalizations, and both learn vocal content from their elders. This is something shared with only a few other species (“vocal learners,” like dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants), and makes us unique among the primates (the grunts of old and young chimps sound basically identical). What the new research shows is that humans and songbirds share fifty-five genes in the vocal-learning regions of the brain. Thus, even as the ability to vocalize developed independently in these species, it has similar molecular underpinnings.

Scientists hope to use this data to better understand and treat human speech disorders. (People cannot be subjected to the same experiments as birds.) There are also implications in the realm of music. Ethnomusicologists often claim that music is as important to humans as speech—a view drawn from the cross-cultural use of musical sounds in asserting individual and collective identity, conveying and retaining information, expressing and receiving emotional signals, and a host of other functions. “We need music to be human” is the discipline’s unofficial slogan. The fact that a child is first exposed to musical speech and first takes to musical babbling supports the notion of music as a human fundamental. New discoveries connecting bird songs and human speech could bolster that position. On a genetic level, it seems, singing and speaking are essentially variants of the same thing.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Terrestrial Sounds

 Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

On September 5, 1977, NASA sent a probe to study the outer Solar System and continue on to interstellar space. Named Voyager 1, the sixteen hundred pound craft is now approximately twelve billion miles from Earth. An identical spacecraft, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks before its interstellar twin, but Voyager 1 moved faster and eventually passed it. Both probes carry a golden phonograph record containing sounds and images meant to convey the diversity of terrestrial life and human culture. The hope is that, should intelligent extraterrestrials find one of these infinitesimal records in infinite space, they would be able to decipher its contents.

The record includes 116 images and an array of earthly sounds: greetings in fifty-five languages, volcanoes, a chimpanzee, a heartbeat, a train, Morse code, a wild dog, a mother and child, rain, and much more. It also has ninety minutes of music, ranging from a Pygmy girl’s initiation song to Indonesian gamelan music to the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to the “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The possibility of an extraterrestrial species obtaining, playing, and comprehending the Golden Record is minuscule. Not only is it a tiny object moving in the vastness of space, but the sounds it includes are utterly earthbound. In striving to portray sundry soundscapes, the record reveals a certain, if subtle, unity: every sound on this planet bears the imprint of this planet. Such earthliness would surely fall on deaf alien ears (if they even have an auditory mechanism). The sounds we make or perceive have an evolutionary history unique to our orb.

In the decades since the Voyager space pods were set in motion, much has come to light about the natural origins of music. Bernie Krause’s groundbreaking work on non-human “musical” proclivities suggests, among other things, the millennia-spanning influence of geophony (Earth sounds) and biophony (non-human animal sounds) on anthrophony (human sounds). Other theories of music’s origins point to environmental imprints in one way or another. A rough amalgamation of these nuanced hypotheses shows music as a combination of the imitation of nature and the exploration of human capacities.

Added to this is mounting evidence of the interconnectedness of Earth’s living creatures. As Neil Shubin explains in his popular book, Your Inner Fish, the close examination of fossils, embryos, genes, and anatomical structures indicates that all animals, prehistoric and modern, are variations of the same blueprint—hence the fish within us all. (Shubin remarked in a lecture that he could have just as easily called the book, Your Inner Fly.) What this means musically is that creaturely sounds of all sorts emanate from the same extended biological family, and are thus shaped by variations of the same constraints. The reason why researchers have been able to explore musical vocabularies of songbirds and bugs, and their probable influence on early humans, is because, despite surface dissimilarities, animals are people too (or, more accurately, humans are animals).

The extraterrestrial species that happens upon the Golden Record will almost certainly be nothing like us. Life on Earth shares an anatomical makeup that could have only developed here; other habitable planets would have other ingredients. This is a major criticism of popular depictions of aliens, which, aside from The Blob (1958) and a few others, invariably appear as insects, reptiles, humanoids, or a combination of the three. Genes on another planet would give rise to species beyond our Earth-born imaginations. And our sounds—musical, linguistic, animal, or otherwise—would be unlike anything they’ve ever heard.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Two Pockets

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A well-known teaching is attributed to Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), a leading Polish Hasidic rabbi. He recommended that everyone carry two strips of paper, one in each pocket. The paper in the right pocket should read, “For my sake the world was created.” The one in the left should state, “I am but dust and ashes.” The good rabbi devised these opposite phrases to temper one’s mood. Consult the right pocket when feeling diminished; visit the left pocket when feeling cocksure.

An updated version of Simcha’s pockets might have the arts on one side and science on the other. Artistic displays feed a perception of self-importance. They play to our senses, engage our imaginations, and bring meaning to our lives. Our capacity to make and appreciate art is conventionally seen as a benchmark separating us from other earthlings. And because the artistic experience is so personal, we can be led to think that “it’s all about me.” Art has the power to transform sights, sounds, and movements into signals of importance.

Science refutes all of this. While it, too, encourages self-fascination, it is a fascination that points in the opposite direction. The more scientists uncover, the less significant we appear. We are ever-shrinking beings in an ever-expanding universe. It is believed that 96 percent of the cosmos is made of dark matter—stuff astronomers cannot detect or comprehend. 99.9 percent of species that have existed on earth are now extinct. Humankind is an infinitesimal blip on the evolutionary radar. Even our thoughts can be reduced to neurochemical reactions. As Neil deGrasse Tyson once put it, we are “a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck.”

Too much time spent in either pocket can yield a harmful outlook. The arts offer a valuable antidote to the drudgery of existence, and provide much-needed motivation to carry on in a cold and complicated world. But total absorption in the artistic lie of self-importance can separate us from reality. Scientific discoveries offer a humbling perspective, and a much-needed challenge to the human ego. Yet absolute entanglement in its broad picture of reality can lead to an unhealthy appraisal of one’s self worth.

The best approach is to follow Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s advice. The arts can console us when we’re feeling low and helpless. Science can step in when we’re feeling high and mighty. The two spheres can serve as life regulators, bringing balance to our brief journeys on this tiny speck.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Theory and Practice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theory and practice in music are often portrayed as opposing modes of discernment. Theory is viewed as abstract, analytical and remote from the musical moment. Its tools and methods distill a work to its elemental components and provide the mechanical framework for a piece’s construction; but they hardly account (or attempt to account) for music’s affections or aesthetics. At its most austere, theory becomes what seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne conceived it to be: the reduction of music to the movement of air. Opponents of this approach, like social critic Morris Berman, point to its apparent spiritlessness. For them, music is a happening, existing to be heard and felt, not dissected or diagnosed.

If we take the extremes of either position, then listening and analysis are two unrelated activities. True, the theorist rarely dwells on the effects of a piece while examining it under the microscope. And the listener rarely ponders specific properties that are stimulating a musical response. However, theory and practice are not as distant as we might presume. Not only are they aspects of the same phenomenon—music—they also address companion human needs for order and wonder.

The combination of formal design and amorphous impact is at the root of music’s appeal. Though features such as pitch, timbre, duration and harmony are susceptible to meticulous examination, their cumulative effect cannot be accurately predicated, precisely measured or empirically determined. It is at the same time science and art.

Mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski made a related observation in his influential book, The Identity of Man (1965). Using science and poetry as contrasting pathways of human inquiry, Bronowski explained that while scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. Science is miserly, weeding out the proliferation of new ideas; art is generous, exploiting the vastness of ambiguities. For Bronowski, these two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of human consciousness.

It is intriguing that both avenues exist simultaneously in music. A musical selection is receptive to the scientific approach of the theorist, who separates, labels and quantifies its basic materials. But it is also open-ended, inviting subjective reactions and creative interpretations. These modes of engagement can appear mutually exclusive and certainly call upon different devices and frames of mind. Yet, when we apply Bronowski’s insights, it becomes clear that theory and practice satisfy the concurrent and fundamental human needs for certainty and possibility. Science and art merge in music, enriching the entirety of consciousness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Everyone’s a Critic

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The second half of the Book of Exodus concerns itself mostly with the construction of the Tabernacle: the portable sanctuary the Israelites reportedly used during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. As the Bible tells it, the structure was built according to meticulous specifications revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. “Exactly as I show you,” God commands Moses, “the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishing—so shall you make it” (Exod. 25:9). An array of artistic skills are needed for fashioning the extensive and minute details of the glorious tent, from architecture to embroidery to interior design. We read excruciating particulars about different woods, fabrics, dyes, precious metals and lustrous stones. There are instructions regarding materials needed for the Ark (ch. 25), partitions (ch. 26), copper altar (ch. 27), priestly vestments (ch. 28), anointing oils (ch. 30) and on and on. Adding to the ploddingness, there is enormous repetition throughout these punctilious verses, which amount to the largest and most exhausted single subject in the entire Pentateuch.

Contrast this with the Bible’s crudeness and over-simplicity when addressing the ways of nature. Biblical apologists usually paint these childlike passages as reflective of the intellectual and technological development of people at the time, not the knowledge of the heavenly creator. Stories of the origins of life, the positioning of celestial bodies, the mechanisms of earthquakes and the like are presented in imagery and terminology the Israelites could understand. Thus, palpability of information was an act of divine wisdom and compassion rather than an indication of naiveté.

Underlying this comparison is a still-pervasive reality: we are open and critical when discussing art, yet we freely concede ignorance when science becomes too complex. Works of art, like the Tabernacle, are designed to have a visceral and instant impact upon us. That is why sacred spaces from ancient days to the present are regularly adorned with eye-catching features. Scientific explanations, like those absent from the Bible, often exceed the average person’s ability to comprehend. That is why scientific inquiry is the domain of a highly intelligent, highly trained and highly specialized few. While art is for immediate human consumption, science seeks the best explanations for complicated phenomena, however unapproachable the methods or outcomes might be.

One result is that we fancy ourselves qualified to judge artistic creations, and do so impulsively. The reason the Tabernacle had to be made a certain way is the same reason we like art to look or sound a certain way: aesthetic preference. Our natural response to scientific work is essentially the opposite. When we come across scientific data, we tend to throw up our hands in a gesture simultaneously signaling ignorance and awe.

Bertrand Russell described these reactions in The Conquest of Happiness. “When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem,” he wrote, “they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.”

Partly because of his awareness of this human tendency and partly because of his professed ignorance of art, Russell, when asked “What is your attitude toward art today?” replied, “I have no view about art today.” He elaborated in another interview: “You ask why I have never written on the subject of painting. The chief reason is that I suffer from an inadequate appreciation of pictures. I get very great delight from music and also from architecture, but for some reason I get much less from painting and sculpture. This inability makes we unable to form any judgment from the reproduction of the picture . . .”

Russell’s responsible remarks are far from the norm. Most of us are quick to voice our opinions on paintings, buildings, sculptures, poems and music, usually blurting out the unsophisticated (and basically meaningless) words “good” and “bad.” As Russell noted, our assessments hinge mainly on whether or not we understand the art work. But when it comes to science, the less comprehensible the theory or concept, the more impressive it is.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.