J.S. Bach – top value for money for over 250 years

Published by Richard Hare on

Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist‘s “The Master and His Emissary” is proving a more engaging read than I anticipated.
Lured along by the title of his RSA event – “The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” – I found myself queuing for a copy of his book afterwards (despite being one of those consultants he mentions).
The second chapter on what the hemispheres “do” is as long as his warning suggests, though his descriptions of brain functions are interspersed with supporting anecdotes from both research and wider observations which prevent it from becoming too dry.
One that particularly intrigued me concerned J. S. Bach, whose music seems to demonstrate a curious effect.
An important principle the book establishes early on is that the right hemisphere of the brain is activated by novelty and is responsible when we gather new information. Once this information becomes familiar, the left hemisphere takes over.
“…the contrapuntal music of J. S. Bach causes a strong right-hemisphere activation even in trained musicians… a range of melodic contours needs to be maintained in awareness simultaneously, requiring the right hemisphere’s greater capacity to hold experience in working memory.”
He goes on:
“…an alternative explanation might lie in the impossibility of attending to all parts of such music in its entirety, so that it can never be experienced in exactly the same way on different hearings.”
Although I learned music, the links between practice, theory and history were never made explicit – one reason I lost interest – so I usually maintain a naive viewpoint. However, it reminded me of hearing Brian Eno speak about generative music around the time of his experiments with SSEYO Koan to produce pieces of music which varied whenever played.
I haven’t used Koan for over ten years as I never managed to get it working on a post-2000 computer, but I will be listening to Bach and perhaps digging out my 20th anniversary copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid“. It’s about time I finished it.
And if you are lucky enough to receive a recording of Bach from me as a gift, just don’t expect another one.
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