About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

October 28, 2012


"If you are looking about for really profound mysteries, essential aspects of our existence for which neither the sciences nor the humanities can provide any sort of explanation, I suggest starting with music."

The great Lewis Thomas spoke of what we now have to specify as 'classical' music, the above from an essay, "On Matters of Doubt" in Discover and later collected in Thomas' book of essays published in 1980, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. That collection came late in his life after a distinguished career as a research pathologist--and Dean and Chancellor at Yale, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Rockefeller Institute--and essayist addressing many of life's eternal questions.

"I can remember with some clarity what it was like to be sixteen. I had discovered the Brahms symphonies. I knew there was something going on in the late Beethoven quartets that I would have to figure out, and I knew that there was plenty of time ahead for all the figuring I would have to do. I had never heard of Mahler. I was in no hurry. I was a college sophomore and had decided that Wallace Stevens and I possessed a comprehensive understanding of everything needed for a life."

Among the many of Thomas' insights I hold with me is that the prolonged childhood of homo sapiens evolved out of the fact that using that long childhood development period to learn languages gave some humans a "selective advantage" (becoming the fittest to survive); and is the best time of life when a human can truly learn a language. It's the only time to learn to play music, a very special language. One can still learn serviceable French or Chinese as an adult but never successfully become a performer of music after the age of 20 years unless you have laid down firm cerebral hardware before adulthood. So far as I know, Thomas didn't attain proficiency as a performer. As a college sophomore at age 16 and Harvard medical student at 19, he had other passions, but he did listen to music regularly and seriously at that critical age and thus developed his life-long passion for listening.

Once asked how we might send signals from Earth to announce ourselves to whatever life there might be in outer space:

"Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later." 

Thomas eventually did discover Mahler's music. The title essay in the collection, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony, one of his last essays, is his saddest of all. When Mahler wrote the Ninth he was aware of his own approaching death, having already experienced early symptoms of what we now know was bacterial endocarditis. When he first listened to the ninth, Thomas "took the music as a metaphor for reassurance, confirming my own strong hunch that the dying of every living creature, the most natural of all experiences, has to be a peaceful experience.... Mahler's idea of leave-taking at its best."

But near the end of his life Thomas began to "hear it differently. I cannot listen to the last movement...without the door-smashing intrusion of a huge new thought: death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity...a world in which the thermonuclear bombs have begun to explode...." "This is a bad enough thing for the people in my generation. We can put up with it. I suppose we must. We are moving along anyway, like it or not.... What I cannot imagine, what I cannot put up with, the thought that keeps grinding its way into my mind, making the Mahler a hideous noise close to killing me, is what it would be like to be young."

Since 1993 Lewis Thomas has not had to worry about the end of humanity. For those of who still must, listening to music may help. 

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