Friday, 27 August 2010

The deaf composer

First we had the “blind watchmaker” of Richard Dawkins, now we are apparently being asked by scientists to believe in the “deaf composer”. No, I'm not referring to Beethoven, but to that remarkably intelligent - though blind and deaf - creative force: evolution!

While working on a research project last night, I kep an eye on and an ear tuned to a fascinating program on the TV called, I think, The Music Instinct, presented by a professor of neuroscience named Levitin and the popular singer Bobby McFerrin. And it really was fascinating and well done. It piqued my interest because in one of our congregations recently we had a thanksgiving service for music as one of God’s gifts to humankind.

In my sermon for that service I spoke about the role of music in Biblical worship past and present and speculated that our music at its best may be an earthly echo of heavenly music, just as the Temple was a copy of a heavenly prototype. If man is made in the image of God, I thought, then surely music is no mere accidental creation, but actually reflects a reality in the mind of God. Music, I mentioned, was intimately related to mathematics and physics and revealed ordered patterns set in creation by the Creator. For instance, all animate and inanimate objects in the universe apparently vibrate at certain pitches, a fact which engineers have to take into account in order to ensure the stability of the structures they build. A bridge, for example, will vibrate just like a plucked violin string in certain weather conditions, to the point of destruction - so engineers have to counter this by building corrections into the structure to alter the pitch, just like a violin string when depressed on the fingerboard will vibrate at a different pitch, producing different notes. (I’m no musicologist, not even a trained musician, so pardon any errors I’m stumbling into here).
Likewise, the rhythmic impact of waves on the pylons of deep sea oil rigs at a particular pitch causes the pylons to vibrate like a guitar string, producing the same note, as if in sympathetic response to the waves! But this threatens the integrity of the structure, so engineers have to build in the ability to alter the pitch at which the pylons vibrate so that the note can be changed, just like a guitarist changes the pitch of the strings of his instrument. It appears that the whole of creation, including man-made objects, is imbued with musicality.

So, I was interested to see in the program that neuroscientists are doing research which is discovering that music may indeed be a universal language. I would say this is because it is based on universals that the Word of God has sung into creation, like the octave for example, which all musical cultures seem to recognise and work with even when they conceive melody and harmony differently from western music. Babies, you may be surprised to learn, even cry in musical intervals, from the root note to thirds and fifths (would you believe it if science hadn't proved it!?) And just to be sure this wasn’t learned behaviour acquired in the womb as parents played music, they found the same phenomenon in the children of deaf parents. Of course, we know that babies can hear in the womb, but it seems that they can even appreciate music, and perceive the difference between discordant and concordant music.

The scientists had to acknowledge that the human ear seemed specifically “designed” to hear music. But, and here’s the rub, they were several times heard to blithely assert something like “this is all the most remarkable evidence of the creative powers of evolution”!

So, behold the advent of the deaf composer. Further confirmation, I think, that there are none so blind as those who will not see...and none so deaf as those who will not hear!

(The painting is The Music Lesson, by Vermeer.)

1 comment:

Matthias said...

After reading this Pastor I immediately thought of this Psalm-forget which one
"In my mother's womb You formed me, behold I am gloriously and wondrously made"