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

October 20, 2012


Discussing his book (Hallelujah Junction; Composing an American Life) composer John Adams sensed a "suspicious" and “vaguely subversive” view of the arts among the American public. I suppose that view is held mostly by a portion of Americans, possibly an increasing one that has less experience of the arts, at least with what I thought were 'arts' -- in contrast to activities now covered in 'Arts and Entertainment' sections. Wendy Steiner (The Scandal of Pleasure) and Richard Taruskin (The Danger of Music) address similar issues.

Threat from the Arts is nothing new. Taruskin quotes St. Augustine (4th C.E.): “…more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned criminally….” 

The Prophet Muhammad (7th C.E.) commanded, “Those who listen to music and songs in this world on the Day of Judgment molten lead will be poured into their ears.”  (No Fatwas, please!)

A 12th century Bishop of Chartres complained of the singing in Notre Dame: “Music more easily occasions titillation between the legs than a sense of devotion in the brain.”

Divas in the Convent was released in April. For the general reader it is an abridged version of Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art & Arson in the convents of Italy, which is, contrary to its scandalous title, a scholarly study of 16th- and 17th-century music and female monasticism. The trouble began in the 1550’s when cloistered singers started to embellish chant (Gregorian and otherwise) with polyphony (singing in parts). The singers were women. Church officials (men) were more than suspicious. They feared that the nuns would “sing to the world and not to heaven” and realized that singing was their only way to get 15 minutes of fame, certainly inappropriate for nuns. The master inquisitor collected testimonies and issued prohibitions, forbidding polyphony and instruments except the organ. (Washington Magazine, October 2012)

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