A New Book Explores the Connections Between Music, Physics, and Neuroscience

Professor, musician, and composer David Sulzer demystifies the science that underlies music.

Eve Glasberg
April 26, 2021

Why does a clarinet play at lower pitches than a flute? What does it mean for sounds to be in or out of tune? How are emotions carried by music? Do other animals perceive sound like we do? How might a musician use math to come up with new ideas?

Music, Math, and Mind by David Sulzer, a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Pharmacology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, offers a lively exploration of the mathematics, physics, and neuroscience that underlie music. He makes accessible a vast range of material and demystifies how music works.

Sulzer’s lab has made important contributions to the study of brain mechanisms involved in autism, Parkinson’s disease, drug addiction, and learning and memory. He is also a composer and performer, and has worked with many major figures in the classical, jazz, and pop worlds. Some of his projects bridge music and neuroscience, including the Brainwave Music Project, which uses EEGs of brain activity to create compositions. 

Sulzer discusses his new book with Columbia News, along with what it’s like to be both a neuroscientist and a musician, what music and books he’s been enjoying lately, and who he would invite to a dinner party.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. I had impossible-to-answer questions. Some were a result of the Thai Elephant Orchestra, a musical group of 14 elephants that I founded with elephant conservationist Richard Lair in northern Thailand. How do you design instruments that are ergonomic and enjoyed by another species? Do elephants hear like we do, do they enjoy playing music together?

I then created musical instruments for songbirds, and the questions appeared with greater force, as birds are so much faster, and their personalities less fathomable. Similar concerns arose when I coached young children to produce their own records in Brooklyn, East Harlem, and Guatemala. And I faced such concerns again when I eventually resumed working with professional musicians.

I must mention my mentors and friends, the Columbia professors Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, who co-invented the synthesizer and tape music. They were motivated by simple questions that required challenging technology to address. There’s also Roscoe Mitchell, my first composing teacher. We all shared similar concerns. To some extent, they occur to all artists. Artists are curious by nature, and this book is for them.

"Music, Math, and Mind" by Columbia University Irving Medical Center Professor David Sulzer

Q. Can a music lover appreciate the book without having a deep knowledge of math, physics, or neuroscience?

A. That’s the goal. Once you mention math, art lovers and musicians glaze over: Not that they aren’t interested, but they are confident that they won’t be able to follow the discussion. Untrue! This book goes into the nitty gritty of how math and biology underlie music, yet you don’t need math skills beyond 5th grade multiplication and division to understand the content.

In my class related to the book at Columbia, students range from undergrads to medical students to professors in other fields. Each student creates a project based on themes in the book, ranging from building new musical instruments, to creating new sounds, to writing deep learning algorithms that differentiate phrasing by famous piano virtuosos.

Q. What came first for you, neuroscience or music? 

A. In junior high school, I fell in love with plants—in part, from Euell Gibbons’ books—and spent my time in forests with field guides. In college, I studied plant breeding, and thought I would be a contemporary Norman Bourlag and develop better agriculture for the world. After moving to New York City, I made a living for a year as a gigging musician. I applied to grad school in biology at Columbia, but there was only one plant laboratory—Alberto Mancinelli’s. We each had to take a neuroscience course run by Martin Chalfie and Darcy Kelley. I had not known the field existed until then.

Q. How does your work as a professor and lab director at Columbia intersect with your life as a musician and composer?

A. These fields are starting to intersect. A talented grad student in my lab, Adrien Stanley, found that a sound associated with another sensory input elicits a specific and enormous change in a specific synaptic connection deep in the brain. His finding provides an entry to discovering how language and music are learned and coupled to meaning. This is important for normal learning and diseases of auditory processing, particularly autism. We are conducting this research with computational scientists, geneticists, and with our own skills as neurophysiologists. I don’t think I would know how to start asking these questions if I hadn’t taught my students about the auditory pathway.

Q. What music have you listened to during the pandemic?

A. There’s been wonderful music made during this period. David First is producing outstanding pandemic recordings, including drone music on The Consummation of Right and Wrong—which may not seem appealing until you listen—and great pop songs related to Black Lives Matter with New Party Systems. The Iranian-L.A. musician Sussan Deyhim is doing startling new work. There’s the new record Tyabala, from L’ecole Fula Flute, children in Conakry, Guinea coached by New York musician Sylvain Leroux. This has been a good time to listen to gospel choirs, which I’ve been discovering and rediscovering—Trey McLaughlin and the Sounds of Zamar, Kirk Franklin, Bob Telson’s Gospel at Colonus.

Q. Any book recommendations?

A. I may have been intellectually transformed by explorer-entomologist Mark Moffett’s new book, The Human Swarm. If he is right, some of our most despicable behavior is biologically built-in, just as it is for ants. He writes that pettiness, status-seeking, backstabbing, and nationalism are innate, and that the better we understand this, the better we can deal with issues that will always show up in human society.

Q. What are you teaching now? How have you been able to help your students cope with online learning?

A. For lab research, we had to coordinate schedules so that only one person is in a room at a time. During the several weeks we couldn’t do any experiments, all students worked on review papers about the history of their research. This forces them to learn their roots, produces useful articles for the rest of the field, and, for grad students, doubles as the first chapters of their dissertations.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

A. If the dinner party ought to be in a language I can nearly speak, I’ll invite Jonathan Swift, a bona-fide academic as Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, and his troubled spiritual descendent, George Orwell, likewise a dyed-in-the-wool academic who taught college.

Orwell was well aware that his own bleary-eyed One World utopian ideals ran contrary to Swift’s dour Anglican view of humanity’s venality, and yet Swift was his single greatest influence. Due to the unfair one-way direction of time, Swift hasn’t had a chance to hear Orwell out. For a priest, Swift seems to have been talented at partying, and the music will be provided by his close friend, Turlough O’Carolan, the blind harpist and sort of national composer of Ireland. If available, he’ll bring the English folk musician Eliza Carthy to sing Swift’s lyrics. I’m afraid that the menu will be Guinness and chips in curry sauce wrapped in newspaper.  

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