David Sulzer


On his book Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021

A close-up

Perhaps the best way for a reader to begin is to peruse the questions that start each chapter and find ones that are of interest to them. The answers can be complicated—indeed some have been addressed throughout history—but no one should be intimidated. With some patience, the explanations are understandable by virtually anyone.

Here is an example: most readers have heard of “brainwaves”, but likely have no idea of what this term really means. In the chapter on brainwaves, we build on the previous chapter on rhythm in music, where we drew the conclusion that syncopation requires more than one “clock” of beats at a time, so we must have a means by which we can hold multiple clocks at once.

To understand how this is accomplished, we relate how the cells of the brain communicate with each other through “synapses”. To do this, they modulate each other’s electrical currents, and we describe how the cells of the brain, the neurons, act as batteries. But what is a battery? To understand that, we need to comprehend what voltage and current mean. We derive this using nothing more than multiplication and division by discussing how a bathtub fills with water from a water tower. (This last effort took me about two solid days to figure out for myself. But I explain it in two pages.)

From there we go through the history of the debate about whether animals produce electricity, which was partly settled by a study of the electric fish in the 1700s and later by experiments by Luigi Galvani, in which he stimulated a frog leg with electricity from lightning—a scientific paper published in 1791 that led to Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein.

From there, we discuss how a German doctor in 1929 recorded brain waves in humans by embedding recording electrodes under the scalps of his own children and discovered the alpha wave when he asked them to perform hard math problems, like dividing 196 by 7, in their heads.

We then discuss the nervous system rhythm with which we are most familiar, our heartbeat, and how the electrical currents that control the heartbeat are due to “channels” in the membrane that allow charged ions of sodium, potassium, and calcium to move back and forth inside and out from the cells. That allows us to move on to how the much faster rhythms in the central nervous system are activated by the same sorts of mechanisms. Finally, we get to how the connections between these different neurons can lead to the production of rhythms in the brain, while acknowledging gaps in present knowledge on these questions.

For listening material, we discuss the unnaturally rapid rhythms in electronic styles made on a laptop computer, Gene Wilder and Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, and the use of brainwaves to trigger music including my own record, The Brainwave Music Project, in which the computer musician Brad Garton and I enable jazz and classical performers to perform live duets with their own brain activity. In order to disturb one’s own expectations and drive interruptions that cause a cortical phenomenon known as “auditory evoked potentials” I advise readers to listen to anything by Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Really, anything by them.