David Sulzer


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

Cover Interview of April 21, 2021


In the Introduction, I write “no one needs this book”, as artists create great work without understanding the universal and physical bases of what they do. Yet artists and art lovers have imaginations that allow them to enter new territories and make the ones they already work in more profound. This book will help them further appreciate their own nervous systems, the intelligence of other species, and the nature of the cosmos—this might seem over the top, but as readers will come to appreciate, a great deal of what humanity learned in these topics genuinely comes from the investigation of music.

As much as I hope that this learning will help creative readers develop new work, and help listeners develop their appreciation, I think that there are a series of profound lessons in how these investigations broaden our horizons and insights.

For example, there is a controversial hypothesis from Gordon Shaw’s “Mozart effect”, in which he theorized that children would be smarter if they listened and learned to play Mozart, and that this can be used in the treatment of childhood epilepsy. In some studies, the decrease in seizure activity lasted beyond the duration of the music, suggesting that such music may be therapeutic. While the evidence is unclear, we have traced how sound and music travels to the cortex to modulate its synaptic activity, and in that way, playing a sound is analogous to a stimulating electrode in the deep brain.

Our understanding of wave theory, which underlies all contemporary electronics, in part came from the development of the siren, as in a police siren, which was originally a musical instrument invented by a Scottish physicist, John Robison (1739-1805), and further improved by Charles de la Tour (1819), who named it for the mythical Greek singing legends. The study of these soundwaves led to the discovery by Christian Doppler of the Doppler effect, which explains how siren pitches rise and fall. Albert Einstein extended Doppler’s insight in 1905 to describe how light travels at a constant velocity. The wavelength emitted from stars also stretches or compresses, and Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), extended this by noting that the most distant galaxies appeared red, suggesting that the “red shift” was due to the galaxies moving away from us, and so introduced the theory that we live in an expanding universe.

For the future, I suspect that some of humanity’s most important work will be in understanding other life. In this way, Roger Payne and colleague’s discovery of whale song, I think to some extent, helped to save them from extinction by our species. Recently, the primatologist Susan Savage-Rumbaugh with the musician Peter Gabriel showed that bonobos can improvise music, and Richard Lair and I showed the same with elephants. Perhaps the understanding of the art of other species will help us commit to treating them better and find ways by which they can survive the greed, thoughtlessness, and predation of our species.

And they will respond by lending insight into ourselves. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Itai Roffman, and others in their field are now writing convincing arguments that some of these species should be legally treated as human beings, with the same rights to survive and prosper. I suspect that the more we know, the more we will agree with them, and the richer our relationship with nature will be. In my opinion, this is the essence of spirituality and the most essential goal for all us. There is much to do…

Art for all species!