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Kohn's Corner

my Amazon reviews, mostly about books, movies and music


Musical Mysteries

Some things about music I just don't understand ... and look forward to your explanations.

1. How does evolution explain musical child prodigies? In our mere million years or so since the African plain, what lets a special 12-year-old child play a violin (Sarah Chang) or piano (Evgeny Kissin) like a skilled adult?

(May 2015, I discover a miraculous 4-year old boy. Give a listen, and tell me how this is possible.)

(January 2019, an even greater prodigy, maybe, one Joey Alexander.)

Not just the demanding physical dexterity required to finger the strings or keys.  As remarkable as that surely is, more amazing, to me anyway, is the ability to memorize the thousands of notes in a composition. As I, meanwhile, struggle with Mary Had a Little Lamb with only one hand.


2. How can musical tastes vary so greatly between reasonably intelligent, similar people?   One of my favorite composers is George Winston. A good friend can't stand George Winston. My friend loves bepop jazz. I can't stand bepop jazz.

How can a friend I respect actually like Elton John or the Beach Boys? How can I adore the McGarrigle sisters and a friend thinks they're boring? Another friend but you get the picture.

What is it about music that the same piece takes some of us to inexpressible pleasure and others of us almost to pain?


3. Would I still enjoy the CD as much if Id paid the regular $15 for it? Or if the CD had come highly recommended by a friend or review? Some of my very favorite CDs were picked up at yard sales and swap meets, where I didnt recognize the artist but took a chance for a few bucks. Did I come to like this music because of the way I stumbled upon it - the unexpected joy - or is it really good on its own merits?

I really don't know. But I've come to wish that every CD I hear would come unmarked, no liner notes, not even who the musicians are, just what appears to be a blank CD.

I'd want to hear the music with my mind uninfluenced in any way, not by the name of a favorite artist, not by a favorable review, not by liner notes trying to help me like or "understand" the music. I want just the music, plain and unvarnished. Then if I liked it, would I learn more about it.

The closest I get is to never read the CD's liner notes until after I've played the CD. I don't want anything between the music and me, nothing to add to the canvas the music will paint. It's also why I've restrained myself on this website from praising my favorite musicians too highly, for fear of creating expectations that can't possibly be met. So that you can "stumble" upon the unexpected joy, too. 


4. What it is about music that it becomes more enjoyable the more often you hear it? Try watching a favorite movie the second time, even decades later. It doesn't work. The thrill is gone.

Books are the same. Sometimes we can read a book again to enjoy the author's skill, but once is usually enough.

Music? We can enjoy an album in our collection repeatedly, and find increased pleasure in each hearing. In fact, for me at least, music doesn't get boring with repetition, it gets better.

Why is this? Why doesn't the same thing happen with music as with its sister art forms, film and literature?


5. Why is music so enjoyable at all? * Food, wine, sex, sports: easy to understand why these give pleasure. But what is it about music that at times is equal to them?

The mere plucking of strings, beating of drums, blowing of horns what is it about music that we find so enjoyable? 

It's far more than merely enjoyable. What is it about music that has caused us to bestow honors and riches upon the musically blessed? What is it about music that many have devoted their lives to the mastery of it? Why is this force so strong in us?


6. What explains musical savants?  Like Derek Amato, who slept four days after diving into the shallow end of a pool, then woke up to find he now plays the piano. And does he ever. See more here.

* June 2016, I may have found the answer. In Last Ape Standing, by Chip Walter, we find (on page 137): The idea that creative behavior makes us sexier isn't brand-new. The old master Darwin, keeping in mind the antics of prancing and warbling birds, speculated in The Descent of Man that humans used both dance and song to win the hearts of potential mates. "I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus musical tones became associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling...."

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