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The Music Box, The Brain, and Tchaikovsky

Composers, including the great Tchaikovsky, produce music.

So do music boxes. When we look inside such a device, we find a drum with a pattern of bumps scattered about its surface. We also find a set of metal prongs lined up side-by-side, perfectly aligned, each prong positioned less than one bump away from the surface of the drum. As the drum turns, bumps hit prongs, prongs resonate, and music is made. The ``bump-and-prong engineer," let us assume, is able to design and build some remarkable music boxes.

Many would also say that brains produce music. (``What unprecedented forces conspired to produce, in Mozart's case, that greatest of all musical brains?" -- this is a query most find perfectly meaningful.) If we had explored Tchaikovsky's brain as he formed his sixth symphony, we would have found a wondrous webwork of neurons, spewing chemicals across synapses and pulsing with electricity. Let's suppose that the ``brain engineer," who proudly weaves together networks a good deal more ``wet" than the materials molded by his bump-and-prong friend, is able to design and build some remarkable music-making brains.

Now let's imagine a little contest between the bump-and-prong engineer, the brain engineer, and Tchaikovsky himself. After each searches in solitude for the musical muse, our trio is reunited and brought before a learned audience assembled to judge their creations (the two engineers to be judged by the output of their artifacts). In a stunning coincidence, the box, the brain, and the composer present the very same work: Tchaikovsky's sixth. And in each case, the reaction is the same: the audience jeers -- just as it did when this symphony debuted in St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893.

The two engineers are utterly deflated, and have no answer for those hard-nosed critics who snidely ask how it could be that all their ``inspired" sequestration could have been for naught. Not so Tchaikovsky. He replies:

The idea came to me for a new symphony, this time with a program, but a program that must remain secret. Let those who can, guess it. The work is entitled `A Program Symphony - No. 6'. I have shed tears while composing it in my mind tex2html_wrap_inline78 I have put my entire soul into this work tex2html_wrap_inline78 I love it as I have never before loved any of my musical offspring tex2html_wrap_inline78 I have never felt such satisfaction, such pride, such happiness, as in the knowledge that I myself am truly the creator of this beautiful work [6].

No. 6 is replayed. ``What is the secret!?" comes the collective cry. Tchaikovsky relents: ``In my sixth are hid all the raw emotions of life and death. Listen!" Tchaikovsky retitles his work The Pathétique; the music is played yet again. And this time audiences exult and weep, overwhelmed by the beauty of the secret now grasped.

next up previous
Next: Why COG is Doomed Up: Sherlock Holmes and Tchaikovsky Previous: A Two-Horse Race?

Selmer Bringsjord
Tue Oct 8 12:16:30 EDT 1996