I’ve been thinking a lot about music and technology, and trying to figure out how to merge my interests in electronic music with my longstanding interest in cognitive neuroscience. I’ve been reading and re-reading all kinds of books lately–“The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction” by Jonathan Sterne, R. Murray Schafer’s “The Soundscape”; “The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures” by David Temperley; a book I picked up in the discount pile at the MIT Press bookstore titled “The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933”; “Listening: An Introduction to the Perception of Auditory Events” by Stephen Handel; and a whole bunch more.
I originally got interested in neuroscience by studying chemistry and biology. It followed that I got interested in biochemistry, the most logical merger between bio and chem, and synaptic transmission seemed to be one of the best ways to learn about biochemistry. In the mid-1990s, studying the brain seemed really cutting-edge to me, perhaps because of the brain’s place in the popular consciousness at that time: the rise of electronica, various pop-sci and sci-fi books that were coming out, the impending Internet boom, etc. It felt like a time that was ripe with possibility. I was working long hours in an organic chemistry lab at Princeton during the summer of ’96, trying to make a deeply esoteric molecule in a tube, and I wanted to work on something more messy and biological, more real. I remember feeling excited that textbooks were still in the process of being written on a lot of the stuff in neuroscience, whereas with theoretical organic chemistry, it felt like it had all already been said.
I’ve spent so much time in my 20s figuring out what I want to do–music journalist? scientist? science lecturer? post-punk researcher? documentary filmmaker? My first paying job at MIT when I was seventeen was in brain biochemistry–trying to tease out the biochemical pathways by which melatonin seems to help people sleep. I was also taking a music composition class at the time. I didn’t draw a line then between music and the brain.
This semester, I’ve been auditing a seminar at MIT called Music Perception and Cognition. I took it because I wanted to be exposed to a lot of the current research in the field; I had been reading a lot of scientific papers on my own that I had found via the internet and various journals, but I had no idea which ones were important, and my knowledge of music cognition was, for the most part, rocky and self-taught. The class has been particularly heavy on computational models of pitch perception, which is not a forte of mine. Sometimes I feel like I understand maybe 45% of what’s going on, and sometimes it hurts my brain. But I took the class because I wanted to ‘not understand’; it’s also very useful to find out what is, as of yet, not understood.