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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Language, Music, and the Brain: A Mysterious Relationship

by Michael A. Arbib, Editor
The MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 2013
584 pp., illus., 70 col., 32 b/w. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 978-0262018104.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous  Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA


An old rule of thumb states that the number co-authors of a written work is inversely proportionate to the number of times it will be cited in the future. Anyone seeking proof that this bit of wisdom should be raised to absolute axiom [1] need look no further than this book.

Despite the compilation of 21 essays boasting 40 collaborators who bloat the total page count of this tome to nearly 700 pages, the end result falls short of the subtitle and blurb enticement to demystify the elements of language, music, and thought already largely explained in the so-called Music of the Spheres by Pythagoras [2]. Also, were even a majority of passive voice instances activated, the total page count would probably shed almost 100 pages.

Beyond those fatal flaws, the attempt to accommodate the ever-present tug o' war between specialists and generalists (or as the blub puts it, "experts across disciplines and non-experts") while straddling the fuzzy lines between current controversies and future directions of research on each theme falls far short of the objective on most counts and most likely tends to satisfy nobody in either camp.

The above is not to say that this collection is without merit. One learns, for example, from the first few pages of this otherwise forgettable book that Evelyn Glennie, whose stunning performance of the Concerto for Marimba by Ney Rosauro a few years back, has been mostly deaf since age 12 and, when she performs, beneath her long gown she usually wears no shoes so she can feel the vibrations through her feet and augment her diminished hearing. The Glennie example really is not all that different from Beethoven's need to find better means of coping with his hearing loss.

Where the book could have been more meaningful would have been an exploration of the so-called intellectual /intuitive [head vs. heart] controversy. One fruitful starting point could be the desired ideals of George Gershwin versus those of Leonard Bernstein. The jazz guy wanted to be taken seriously as a classical composer (with the Concerto in F and, especially, his opera Porgy and Bess) whereas the maestro wanted more time off of the podium to write far more great hits than are remembered from West Side Story, On the Town and Candide.

Even more vivid exposition of the seeming disconnect between the cerebral and visceral could have been the case studies of Erroll Garner and Ella Fitzgerald whose inability to read music might have serendipitously contributed to their heightened gifts in the realm of on-the-spot improvisation.

The "neurotechnicrats" probably would insist that now is far too early in the game to make such assessments and advocate a recess of a few years-to-decades until even initial findings are available from the so-called "BRAIN Initiative" (the first word of which is an all-too-typically cute acronym for "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies"[3].

The initiative is a follow-on of sorts the Genome Project except the purpose here is to map all functions of the human brain in the most comprehensive way possible on the most minute (neuro-technological) level to cure or, wherever possible, prevent everything from such debilitating diseases as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, epilepsy and migraines to less serious (in terms of suffering) conditions from dyslexia to stuttering.


Arbib, in the preface and first chapter, tries to clarify the lines between the terms, mind and brain. In so doing, any other matter of demystification has been rendered moot as is the claim that much of any value will stem from the mapping of human brain functionality by those in the NIH/DARPA and their counterparts working on parallel lines in the UK and elsewhere.

Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld shed light upon the more specious claims pointing out that the mind "cannot exist without the brain. Virtually all modern scientists ... are 'mind-body monists': They believe that mind and brain are composed of the same material 'stuff.' All subjective experience, from a frisson of fear to the sweetness of nostalgia, corresponds to physical events in the brain. Decapitation proves this point handily: no functioning brain, no mind. But even though the mind is produced by the action of neurons and brain circuits, the mind is not identical with the matter that produces it."[4]

They continue by pointing out that nothing is "mystical or spooky about this statement, nor does it imply an endorsement of mind-body 'dualism,' the dubious assertion that mind and brain are composed of different physical material. Instead, it means simply that one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological level. By way of analogy, if you wanted to understand the text on [a printed] page, you could analyze the words by submitting their contents to an inorganic chemist, who could ascertain the precise molecular composition of the ink. Yet no amount of chemical analysis could help you understand what these words mean, let alone what they mean in the context of the other words on the page." [5]

The above synopsis of the still-embryonic BRAIN Initiative is no digression from the discourse on Language, Music, and the Brain. Rather, it strikes at the very heart of the matter of so-called "fuzzy logic", disambiguation as it relates to matters of translation and transcription as well as "musical signatures" [6] and human reinterpretation as dealt with by Douglas R. Hofstadter [7]. In that connection, one must revisit the contention in multiple essays that elements and syntax of language do not have exact one-to-one counterparts in music or dance.

While probably more accurate than not in the strictest sense, a compelling case could be made that something akin to a metaphorical approximation exists predicated upon the short ballet, Star Shadows, the brilliant choreography by the late Michael Smuin [8] set to the slow movement of Ravel's Concerto in G.

Ravel straddles the feeling of 6/8 meter as opposed to 3/4 (i.e. 1,2,3 -- 4,5,6 vs. 1,2  --  3,4  --  5,6) even though the meter for the entire movement is 3/4 in the printed score in much the same was Bach does in the middle movement of the Italian Concerto. In much the same way, Smuin has most of the music danced by the three couples separately. Only towards the end, well after the orchestra has entered to join the piano solo, do the three couples interact becoming two trios. (In other words, "boy-girl", "boy-girl", "boy-girl" becomes "boy-boy-boy" and "girl-girl-girl".)

In fact, almost as a "visual dramatization" of the "3/4 feel" of the coda, the three men form a circle with interlocked hands-to-elbows to provide "seating" for the three women, facing outward, who they slowly lift and rotate as though on a merry-go-round. Although the  "3/4 = 6/8" meter has long been a staple of Spanish composers (e.g. de Falla, Rodrigo), a novel variant opens Die Schweigsame Frau by Richard Strauß where the horn starts the Potpourri in 3/4 while everyone else is in 6/8.

How best, then, to validate the findings of the co-authors of the essays comprising Language, Music, and the Brain and reconcile those with the aspirations of the folks who ultimately will collaborate over the next few decades on the brain functionality? Perhaps the matter of foresight in placing bets on predicting exactly where the lightning will strike boils down to Newton's oft-quoted adage about standing upon the shoulders of giants and puts into context most the above enumerated caveats.

The late Joseph C. Wilson, coiner of the word "Xerox," used to posit, "People all too often tend to overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term and, just as often, tend to underestimate what can be accomplished in the long term."


[1] Augustine, Norman, Augustine's Laws, (New York, NY, Viking, 1986) p. 35, 206-212. The actual laws put forth by the ex-CEO of Lockheed-Martin are "Law 5: One-tenth of the participants produce over one-third of the output. Increasing the number of participants merely reduces the average output." and "Law 31: The optimum committee has no members." (The author said his original working title was Norm's Norms.)

[2] Bernstein, Leonard The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) 1976 Harvard University Press -- especially Lecture 4: The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity ... See, also, Tymoczko, Dmitri, "Geometry of Musical Chords" Science 7 July 2006 Vol. 313 -- pp. 72-74, posted at http://sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/313/5783/72.pdf . See also Michael D. Lemonick, "The Geometry of Music" Time -- Vol. 169, Issue 6 -- 5 Feb 2007, pg. 57. time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1582330,00.html.

[3] See: http://www.whitehouse.gov/share/brain-initiative. In much the same way that the proverbial broken clock is correct for one brief moment every twelve hours, the White House might, however unwittingly, finally have hit upon a noteworthy idea with this initiative. Do not hold your breath for that "other brief moment" as the operational clock continues ticking away on this lamest of lame-duck administrations.

[4] Satel, Sally and Scott O. Lilienfeld. "Losing Our Minds in the Age of Brain Science," Skeptical Inquirer, 2013, Volume 37.6, November/December (posted at: www.csicop.org/si/show/losing_our_minds_in_the_age_of_brain_science  -- excerpted from their recent book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience [2013, Basic Books].)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cope, David Virtual Music: Computer Synthesis of Musical Style (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2004) See also, Cope, David, "Facing the Music: Perspectives on Machine-Composed Music" Leonardo Music Journal -- Vol. 9, 1999, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA -- pp 79-87.

[7] Hofstadter, Douglas R. Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (New York, NY, Basic Books, 1997) p. xxiv. See also, leonardo.info/reviews/pre2000/kadeton.html and leonardo.info/reviews/sept2007/i_kade.html. In connection with that last reference, a giant mea culpa is in order where misattribution was made with the quote, "Puccini being the Wagner of music." Credit was erroneously given to C. S. Forester when, of course, it should have been E. M. Forster. All those things (human error) that justify Mark Twain's bon mot about man "being the only creature that blushes or needs to" are the very traits that, however fortuitously if the opportunity presents itself, lead to the break-through "Eureka!" moments making it all worthwhile.

[8] See: http://www.smuinballet.org.

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