A New Book Explores the Connections Between Music, Physics, and Neuroscience – Columbia University

Q. Can a music lover appreciate the book without having a deep knowledge of math, physics, or neuroscience?

A. Thats the goal. Once you mention math, art lovers and musicians glaze over: Not that they arent interested, but they are confident that they wont be able to follow the discussion. Untrue! This book goes into the nitty gritty of how math and biology underlie music, yet you dont need math skills beyond 5thgrade multiplication and division to understand the content.

In my class related to the book at Columbia, students range from undergrads to medical students to professors in other fields. Each student creates a project based on themes in the book, ranging from building new musical instruments, to creating new sounds, to writing deep learning algorithms that differentiate phrasing by famous piano virtuosos.

Q. What came first for you, neuroscience or music?

A. In junior high school, I fell in love with plantsin part, from Euell Gibbons booksand spent my time in forests with field guides. In college, I studied plant breeding, and thought I would be a contemporary Norman Bourlag and develop better agriculture for the world. After moving to New York City, I made a living for a year as a gigging musician. I applied to grad school in biology at Columbia, but there was only one plant laboratoryAlberto Mancinellis. We each had to take a neuroscience course run by Martin Chalfie and Darcy Kelley. I had not known the field existed until then.

Q. How does your work as a professor and lab directorat Columbia intersect with your life as a musician and composer?

A. These fields are starting to intersect. A talented grad student in my lab, Adrien Stanley, found that a sound associated with another sensory input elicits a specific and enormous change in a specific synaptic connection deep in the brain. His finding provides an entry to discovering how language and music are learned and coupled to meaning. This is important for normal learning and diseases of auditory processing, particularly autism. We are conducting this research with computational scientists, geneticists, and with our own skills as neurophysiologists. I dont think I would know how to start asking these questions if I hadnt taught my students about the auditory pathway.

Q. What music have you listened to during the pandemic?

A. Theres been wonderful music made during this period. David First is producing outstanding pandemic recordings, including drone music onThe Consummation of Right and Wrongwhich may not seem appealing until you listenand great pop songs related to Black Lives Matter withNew Party Systems. The Iranian-L.A. musician Sussan Deyhim is doing startling new work. Theres the new record Tyabala, from Lecole Fula Flute, children in Conakry, Guinea coached by New York musician Sylvain Leroux. This has been a good time to listen to gospel choirs, which Ive been discovering and rediscoveringTrey McLaughlin and the Sounds of Zamar, Kirk Franklin, Bob TelsonsGospel at Colonus.

Q. Any book recommendations?

A. I may have been intellectually transformed by explorer-entomologist Mark Moffetts new book,The Human Swarm. If he is right, some of our most despicable behavior is biologically built-in, just as it is for ants. He writes that pettiness, status-seeking, backstabbing, and nationalism are innate, and that the better we understand this, the better we can deal with issues that will always show up in human society.

Q. What are you teaching now? How have you been able to help your students cope with online learning?

A. For lab research, we had to coordinate schedules so that only one person is in a room at a time. During the several weeks we couldnt do any experiments, all students worked on review papers about the history of their research. This forces them to learn their roots, produces useful articles for the rest of the field, and, for grad students, doubles as the first chapters of their dissertations.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

A. If the dinner party ought to be in a language I can nearly speak, Ill invite Jonathan Swift, abona-fide academic as Dean of St. Patricks in Dublin, and his troubled spiritual descendent, George Orwell, likewise a dyed-in-the-wool academic who taught college.

Orwell was well aware that his own bleary-eyed One World utopian ideals ran contrary to Swifts dour Anglican view of humanitys venality, and yet Swift was his single greatest influence. Due to the unfair one-way direction of time, Swift hasnt had a chance to hear Orwell out. For a priest, Swift seems to have been talented at partying, and the music will be provided by his close friend, Turlough OCarolan, the blind harpist and sort of national composer of Ireland. If available, hell bring the English folk musician Eliza Carthy to sing Swifts lyrics. Im afraid that the menu will be Guinness and chips in curry sauce wrapped in newspaper.

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A New Book Explores the Connections Between Music, Physics, and Neuroscience - Columbia University

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