Seeing Music

Observatory, Reading & Writing, The Arts

Some days music makes me so excited I just want to run about taking bites out of the world – replaying ‘The Choral Links’ while walking over Waterloo Bridge at sunset filled me with excitement the other night – why is it that some of us are electrified by music and others untouched?

I’m trying to understand, because I have friends who don’t ‘hear’ music at all. They don’t respond in the same way that I do. We know that say, oysters will affect a certain part of the receptors on your tongue and in your mouth, and you quickly decide if it’s wonderful or awful, and when you ‘taste the sea’ you decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

But taste is a scientifically measurable thing (although tasting the sea also involves memory). Music seems to respond to something more complex. In Daniel J Levitin’s ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ the cerebellum is shown as playing a key role in deciding how much we enjoy music, but in his ‘The World In Six Songs’ it’s suggested that the reason monkeys don’t have music, despite sharing 93% of their DNA with humans, is because they lack the computational connectivity to combine what they see and hear – it’s not just the cerebellum, but other parts of the brain working together.

Now this is interesting, because this heightened connectivity suggests we combine, say, hearing, touch, balance, imagination and sight to build complex visual images when we listen to music. My partner cannot ‘hear’ lyrics, but to me they transform sounds – is it because I’m trained to select and study words in my job? Words and music become paramount when you think of musical theatre. Like a lot of writers I like Stephen Sondheim but can’t stand Andrew Lloyd-Webber; the former’s music reshapes the carefully crafted words, while the latter seems to simply plaster songs over banal lyrics.

Sondheim addressed the sound/sight question directly in a song from ‘Pacific Overtures’, his show about the opening of trade routes into Japan. In one sequence, two men remember the first meeting of East and West when delegates confronted each other in a treaty house. But one man was under the floor and could only hear the events, while another was in a tree and could only see what was happening. The song is compounded in difficulty by making the men’s memory of the event faulty…it’s an old clip, but worth checking out.


12 comments on “Seeing Music”

  1. Diogenes says:

    The mixture of one sensation into another is referred to as synaesthesia and it’s quite common amongst high-achievers esp artists. Some famous synaesthetes are Nabokov, Kandinsky and Richard Feynman. Daniel Tammet, who recited pi to thousands of decimal places, saw the numbers as a landscape which he remembered.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    That’s not the same as the mnemonic device of furnishing a room or a staircase with objects tied to a series of words, objects or ideas which need to be remembered, is it?

  3. Steve says:

    I’m not sure of the science that applies to the imagination; but I’m convinced that without it (the imagination, that is), a person would be completely incapable of being transported by music. It could be appreciated as a mathematical exercise; but that’s rather like appreciating a book only for how well the author connects his/her sentences with no regard at all for the story that’s being told. Music is a science and an art; without the art, it’s sterile, both in the composer (whom I would refer to as a “technician” rather than an “artist”) and in the listener.

  4. I.A.M. says:

    No, mnemonic devices are their own images or areas, whereas synaesthesia is actually sensing the surface and shape of the idea or word, and within its own reality which is entirely separate from our normal one. It’s like seeing into another dimension where words, thoughts, sounds, ideas and so on exist on their own, bumping into one another and having effects which alter things so we see how a harpsichord’s notes are very much yellow and happy but if gravity affects them harpsichords get quite historically impotent and flattened.

    Then again, synaesthesia might also be a really excellent tab of acid.

  5. Steve says:

    Oh, and I rather like Lloyd-Webber, for the same reasons I like Vincent Price – totally hammy and overblown. A delightful guilty pleasure.

  6. Steve says:

    ‘shrooms are better, Ian, for synaesthesia and everything else. Or *ahem* so I’ve heard.

  7. Steve says:

    Oh, and it rather sounds as if you’re describing the Platonic World of Ideals.

  8. I.A.M. says:

    Hmmm… if we’re looking at the world of Plato’s Perfect Plan, then perhaps pot?

    As for ALW, he can take his over-blown, vacuous, self-aggrandizing bombast, as well as his theft of Puccini’s melodies, and find the nearest and shortest pier (which, if spelled differently, could be himself).

  9. Steve says:

    So….you don’t like him then?

  10. Steve says:

    I’ve often thought that at my funeral, I’d like the coffin rigged so that right at the most solemn moment, when everyone is telling lies about how wonderful I was, the lid would pop open, I would sit up, wave my arm and a recording would say “That’s all, folks!” with the Merrie Melodies theme playing in the background. That, I think, would be an artistic statement. Drat, can’t do it now I’ve given the game away, can I?

    What? Oh, apropos of nothing, really. Just sayin’….

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I think I sort of get synaesthesia, but harpsichord notes are silver at the top, brown at the bottom and are shaped like pointy teardrops. Not sure what happens with gravity.

  12. Steve says:

    I always see the instrument(s)playing. If it’s violin, I’ll see a violin, even when it’s actually me playing the sound from my midi guitar. How pedestrian of me.

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