Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Music and the Brain (or, What Does Organ Music Taste Like?)

Instapundit links to a post over at LaShawn Barber's blog that discusses various aspects of music and the brain. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the article is the section on synesthesia, or the aspect of one sense triggering another one in a completely involuntary manner:
At its simplest level, synesthesia means that when a certain sense or part of a sense is activated, another unrelated sense or part of a sense is activated concurrently. For example, when someone hears a sound, he or she immediately sees a color or shape in his or her "mind's eye."
I remember hearing about this syndrome in Psychology of Music class in grad school. I think it came up during a discussion of the guy who sells a perfect pitch course in magazines (to which some of us expressed skepticism). If I recall, the concept in that course had something to do with colors, but it wasn't quite the same thing as people who actually see colors when a certain note is sounded. I remember us joking at the time, "I see purple; it must be an F-sharp!" Well, it turns out that I wasn't too far off the mark. From commenter Jim Ward at Barber's blog:
One of the basic reasons for my success as a Luthier is the fact that I visualize timbre in an instrument in colors. Tap tuning a soundboard to a Dflat pitch, for instance produces a dark blue orientation in my visual field.
Who knew? And here's one more, from commenter Gregg the Obscure:
Have had synesthesia as long as I can remember - the main attribute is that some (not all) musical sounds have associated smells and, occasionally, tastes. This happens more with either pipe organ or orchestral music than with other instruments.
I wonder--and I'm not being totally facetious here--if any synthetes among my fellow saxophonists (who, by and large, prefer sharps to flats by a large margin) would find a G-flat more distasteful than an F-sharp...

Commenter Hucbald gets to the heart of what my class discussed that one time:
Being a musician/composer/guitarist for over thirty years, I’ve not only read about synesthesia and absolute pitch, but I’ve encountered several individuals who have these abilities. The most interesting cases, to me, are the rare people who see specific colors related to every note of the dodecaphonic (twelve-tone/chromatic) system. Astonishingly, they tend to agree on which notes make them see which colors.
And this is even more fascinating to me:
Though I don’t have either of those abilities, I have what I have found to be similar traits to other composers whose music I really like: A terribly low score in numerical ability - below the fiftieth percentile - but top percentile scores in all of the reasoning categories.

[...]Not surprisingly, I guess, the only math course I ever got an “A” in was geometry: I could visualize that internally because it involved manipulating shapes and objects.
Wow. My math experience was largely the same. (And I'll mostly avoid the obvious opening left by Hucbald about being a musician and a guitarist. Heh.)

Read the whole thing (including the great comments section), if you're interested in the subject; me, I find it fascinating. I should note that Barber's post was prompted by the reading of a book entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, which is mostly about music's effect on people with brain disorders, but it also devotes a section to synesthesia. Since I'm three days away from summer (we operate on the academic calendar over here), I'll have to add that book to my to-read list (and I just added it to my Amazon Wish List; hey, it's less than two weeks until mah birfday). Of course, I also have to finally read The Brick of Narnia, which I received several Christmases ago.

Incidentally, Instapundit himself, Glenn Reynolds, says he's a synthete: "I see sounds as visual analogs with shape, color, and texture. Based on my own conversations, this is quite common among people who do sound engineering, and probably helpful." Hmm; I'll have to ask the sound guys at school if they think like that.

UPDATE: I just chimed in over at Barber's comment section, citing an oft-told tale:
I have what one might call garden-variety perfect pitch; I can't tell you how many cents sharp or flat you are, but I can tell you what note you played and reproduce it (range willing) on demand. It comes in very handy in things like transcribing jazz solos, and it made Aural Skills (ear-training) class a breeze in college.

The one time that it wasn't really cool was when I found myself at college parties where both alcohol and a piano were present. Some of my friends used to like to turn my pitch skills into a parlor game of sorts, sitting down to the piano and making some sort of hideous tone cluster, and then saying, "Hey, Kev, what notes are these?" I would usually just smirk and reply, "All of them!"
As I said, read the whole thing; it's one of the best things I've read on the Web in a while (and a nice respite from all politics, all the time.)

Kitten on the keys: While we're on the subject of music, enjoy a lolcat from a few days ago with a new twist on Beethoven.

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