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The sound of music

Can the human mind conceive and perceive music without the sense of hearing? Hopefully, 2009 will give us some answers. Sitaram Yechury examines...

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 16:40 IST

Music occupies more areas of our brain than language does. In other words, we are a musical species


Michael Jackson’s sudden death has left millions stunned. In the same week, sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan expired. The saffron brigade bemoaning insufficient media attention to the latter, anxious to reap political benefit, is cynically invoking the swadeshi vs videshi confrontation.

The pleasures of Ali Akbar’s music are immeasurable. Chandranandan, the raga that he crafted, continues to evoke an irrepressible range of emotions. Recently, we also lost Gangubai Hangal (July 21) and the vocal genius of Carnatic music, D.K. Pattammal (July 16). These geniuses elevated our sense of being, contributing to the pleasures of leisure. Jackson, on the other hand, epitomised the emotions of a dynamic generation on the move. When my daughter in late 1980s asked me if I had seen one song, I was stupefied. One can only hear a song, or so I thought. Jackson, above anybody else, shaped generations to not merely visualise but to see and experience the pleasures of music.

Oliver Sacks, Professor of Clinical Neurology, Columbia University, in Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain invokes science fiction pioneer Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Highly cerebral alien beings, Overlords, out of curiosity, arrive on Earth to attend a concert. They listen politely and, in the end, congratulate the composer on his “great ingenuity” — while still finding the entire business unintelligible.

Sacks says, “We may imagine the Overlords ruminating further, back in their spaceships. This thing called ‘music’, they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans, central to human life. Yet it has no concepts, makes no propositions, it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world.”

Based on his experience of treating people suffering from neurological disorders with music, Sacks says: “Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does — humans are a musical species.”

What is music? How did it evolve and how does it impact human consciousness — this is the subject matter of research today. As we observe the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the centenary of the Origin of Species, 2009 is eagerly being watched for answers. Darwin himself, 12 years after the Origin, in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex suggested the need to find a mate as being the pressing requirement of evolution. He then suggested that music, among humans, played an important role in sexual selection. Shakespeare, as always, put it more powerfully “if music be the food of love, play on...”.

Another functional aspect of music relates to what biologists call group selection — the evocation of patriotism when we stand for our national anthem or marching bands urging soldiers to war.

The Economist (January 2, 2009), reporting on such research, advances another hypothesis: “Language led to music in what has turned out to be a glorious accident — what Stephen Jay Gould called a spandrel, by analogy with the functionless spaces between the arches of cathedrals that artists then fill with paintings.”

Michael Wood, in his acclaimed BBC Epic History Series, The Story of India, however informs us differently. Patterns of vedic mantras recorded in 1975 and subjected to computer analysis two decades later “showed that the nearest analogue of these sound sequences was birdsong. An astonishing conclusion might follow: the possibility that the performance of such patterns of sounds is older than human language, a remnant of a pre-linguistic stage when sound was used in a purely syntactical or ritual manner”.

Was it human quest to reproduce the sounds of nature or the animal world? Thus, the mother’s heartbeat, the overpowering sound heard in the womb when the baby’s organs and faculties are developing, shape the instinctive response to rhythm.

We still need to contend with Beethoven’s 9th symphony. He introduced human voice as he felt the range of sounds of the instruments were inadequate. Much of this was composed by Beethoven when he turned stone deaf. He conducted the symphony’s premiere and according to a witness, at its end, “the whole audience acclaimed him through standing ovations five times, there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that Beethoven, who could not hear the applause, could at least see the ovation gestures.”

Can the human mind conceive and perceive music without the sense of hearing?

Hopefully, 2009 will give us some answers. This should also help settle, once again, the age old philosophical battle between materialism and idealism by moving further to establish that the mind is the highest form of matter.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP.