HARMONY IS ALWAYS HERE

The SCQ would like to introduce a new category, which we have tentatively called “impressions.” Think of it as an avenue to reflect on the music, words, or film that affect your relationship to science or your relationship to something that entails a small link to science. Hmmm, is that vague enough?

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I’m not entirely sure if I became a rational scientific person by nature or nurture. Whether it is genetic or whether it is the obvious result of too many years of study. Whatever the case may be, I am a slave to my curiosity, and sometimes I swear I bleed science. To me, everything needs an answer, deserves an explanation, or craves a solution. Even Ben.

And it would not be a stretch to say that I have known Ben for his entire life. In fact, I was even there at his birth – an intense, wet and happy event that will forever resonate in my head. Not all that surprising when you consider that Ben is only 12 months old and also my son. And as a father, I know that children are truly marvelous creatures – they are like noisy habits, capable of providing endless emotion, delivering that bullet of equal parts joy, worry and fatigue.

They are also mysterious to me. Not in the sense that being a parent fills me with fear, but more in the sense that I am often in wonder at how perfect these small beings really are – a testament, if you will, to the marvel of biology. I mean really, what exactly makes them do the things that they do?

Take music, for instance – it reaches out to Ben. And for whatever reason, certain songs can even elicit specific fervent reactions. Although the examples seem to change weekly, currently they include: Vertigo by U2 (spontaneous heading bobbing – head banging really), Won’t Give In by the Finn Brothers (spontaneous twirling/cuddling), and the Dora The Explorer Theme Song (spontaneous manic hip swaying) – all in a child that is a little over one year old.

It is really quite amazing to behold and so I find myself compelled to ask (as a scientist would tend to do), “Could there really be something biological about music?” A question that, surprisingly enough, is not such a silly question after all. Consider:

People use music therapy to help them cope.
People make their children listen to Mozart.

Still, the skeptic in me takes pleasure in scorning such things. But even I have to concede that it all sounds more or less reasonable. Especially so when you realize that in essence, these statements only rely on the simple inference that some things happen to sound right, whereas other things happen to sound wrong – an unobtrusive statement that in science-talk translates to the phenomenon of sounds being either consonant (pleasant) or dissonant (unpleasant).

But this inference solves nothing. Further, it does not make me understand my child better. So I dig deeper. And I learn that there is an astonishing amount of research in this matter.

People monitor brain activity under difference musical note combinations.
People follow prenatal, neonatal and infant stages of music development.
People compare vocal abilities between various organisms.
People study song structures from various different ethnic and cultural populations.
People search for similarities between language and musical consonance.

In fact, there is so much research that it becomes almost common to hear of the “universality of music.” A phrase that I suppose suggests a special, maybe holy link between music and biology, between music and nature. Maybe even God is at play here. Indeed, studies do exist that contend some truly grand links between music and nature.

People have shown that aspects of musical prowess are genetic in nature.
People have used DNA code to compose musical works.

But God is not an explanation in itself. Not for me anyway. Not today. And while this hunt for answers thrills the scientist in me, the fact that they still remain elusive leads only to frustration.

Concerning the three songs mentioned above. Perhaps, I should ask Bono himself. He is undoubtedly someone who has an inordinate degree of perspective. As a musician, global icon, humanitarian, and parent it wouldn’t surprise me if he, himself, had some wise words on the matter. And truth be told, I’d also be curious to hear what Neil and Tim Finn would have to say, given their brotherly genetics and their ability to craft those near perfect melodies.

But ironically, in the end, I suspect that it is what Dora the Explorer has to say that is most prevalent – which, given her being a cartoon and all, is to say that nothing should be said. That perhaps with music, elements of logic and calculation needn’t get involved; that with music, science is beside the point.

And even though such an assertion personally breaks my scientific heart, I feel it has merit. I feel it when I see Ben move his head to the loud rhythms of Vertigo, an action made all the more fiercely expressive when he is in our car, restrained by his baby seat. And I feel it especially in those precious moments just before bedtime, listening to Won’t Give In, when he chooses to hold me tightly like I’m the only thing that matters in the world.

These are the moments when I realize a new possible truth. And that truth is this – that although the relentless pursuit of knowledge is widening my eyes and mind, I am perhaps losing my soul in the process.

But really, this is just another hypothesis. So for now, I take comfort in knowing at least one thing. I know that for the rest of my life, whenever I hear one of Ben’s favourite songs I will think only of him. And thankfully for now, that is something I’m pretty sure has nothing to do with science.

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