Henry Gray, author of the ubiquitous 1858 text Gray’s Anatomy, described the internal ear of the human being in two parts.
The vestibule, semicircular canals, and cochlea comprise the osseous labyrinth – an awesomely (oss-omely?) complicated structure that features bony canals only 1/20th of an inch in diameter. Within this structure is the second part of the internal ear: the membranous labyrinth. This collection of gooey, liquid-filled cavities is interconnected and in the grand scheme of the human body is the only important point of contact for the vibrations that we call noise.
Once reaching the internal ear, these vibrations from the air (or even from inside our own bodies) are first translated into an electrochemical signal that gets sent along the high-bandwidth auditory nerve. Don’t forget that this transmission is occurring in both of your ears at exactly the same time. When these well-timed signals reach your brain some type of cognitive operating system makes sense of the stimulus energy, providing an inner experience of some sound (or the sound of silence).
I like music. I really, really like music. And even though my primary fields of study are in the brain sciences you can probably infer that for me, like many people, music provides a more generally rewarding and stimulating odyssey than almost any other sound. But contemplating the musical brain and thinking about music can only get you so far – listening to music and practicing music are, at least to me, also valuable and pleasurable endeavors. Classical violin and electronic music production are my only areas of respectable expertise and experience but I also flirt with the piano. Lately, this has involved an affair with a certain organ piece written by Bach – do you know it?
I have been listening to and practicing this piece a little bit every day. With no formal training or instruction it obviously is moving along rather slowly, but rumor has it I have a pretty good ear. With some formal training and instruction in neuroscience, though, I am also moving towards a different understanding of playing this piano piece. How does a human being interact with an instrument? What does it mean to carry voice, rhythm, or an external instrument (or all three) with any success? Approaching these questions means doing at least some research into the anecdotal and written history of music, music performance, and music theory. Mainly, though, brushing up on the anatomy of the ear, anatomy of the auditory nerve, and neural processes associated with cognition are my way of identifying how humans experience music. I will be taking notes during this process and hopefully citing the appropriate sources. There are a lot of people that have already wondered about music, music theory, and how music occurs in the brain. Until his recent death even Oliver Sacks had a significant relationship with music – not only did he say of the effect of music on neurological patients: “For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity…” but he also practiced piano well into old age – even during the loss of his vision. My fondness of this subject, and a desire to move closer to both the academic analysis and personal practice of music, is the basis of the mini-project.
This post will serve as a bit of a public diary entry about this experience. In addition to posting the occasional recording or practice session I will clue you in to the neuroscience research I am ingesting during this process. Links below!