Sound and Color as Maya

September 21, 2006


From time to time, a page from a book jumps out at you like a revelation on fire. Daniel J. Levitin’s new book, THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC is rocking my world. I’m only on his first chapter (What is Music) and am impressed at how well he concisely brings the non-musician up to speed for reading purposes. His summary is fresh, whimsical, and not classical music oriented. It was a page from the introduction that blew me away:

The word pitch refers to the mental representation an organism has of the fundamental frequency of a sound. That is, pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological,” I mean that it is entirely in our heads, not in the-world-out-there; it is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. Sound waves––molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies––do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillations can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to that internal quality we call pitch.

We perceive color in a similar way, and it was Isaac Newton who first realized this. […]. Newton was the first to point out that light is colorless, and that consequently color has to occur inside our brain. He wrote, “The waves themselves are not colored.”

I have told people that I devote my life to stuff that evaporates in the air, and leaves a memory (music). I knew my career was a peculiar one, and was floored to re-realize that every color and sound I see or hear are constructs of my own mind, and ultimately, maya (illusion). The flippant phrase “you create your own reality” now seems more of a truism than I had ever imagined.

I guess this means that there is no guarantee that creatures from other planets could perceive our paintings or our music. I would imagine that dance and sculpture be more universal, in the literal sense.

But what is even more baffling, puzzling and thrilling, is that music is way, way beyond just sound. And the fact that earthlings understand music is even more amazing, and fortunate for people like me. Levitin cites a friend (we’ve all had similar ones) who know absolutely nothing about music theory, notation, musicology, or performance, but can identify (for instance) middle Coltrane, or early Coltrane, and who is playing, and what is different about the “sound.” So many people have this enormous intelligence for music but have identity crises over their inability to play Mozart concertos, or a Hendrix solo. Accept the kind of musical talent you have, even if it isn’t the kind that pays the bills.

Those illusive entities called notes, that our brains construct, string together to create melodies; the melodies soar over sustained chords that move together but more slowly, as though listening and sympathizing with the melody.

Music, and for that matter, musicians are magicians. They can biochemically change you in the turn of a phrase. The “change” occurs only in the listeners brain. It doesn’t corporally “exist.” But you look into the eyes of the enchanted listener, and you see that it does.

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