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Why Music Matters


Consider the following sequences of digits:

1. 26535897

2. 11111111

3. 12345678

4. 55534442

5. 55344231

If you wanted to remember them, how would you go about doing so?


1. The only way to remember this sequence, the 7th thru 14th digits of pi, is by repeating it over and over.  Not something you’d want to do if you didn’t have to.

2. This sequence is easy enough to remember, but hard to keep track of.

3. This sequence is so easy that you’d be insulted if someone asked you to remember it.

4. This sequence is difficult enough to make remembering it an interesting task.  You could of course remember it by repeating it over and over, but it would be more efficient to recognize its internal organization:  that it breaks up into 2 groups of 4 digits—5553 and 4442—in which each group follows a simple pattern.  To remember this sequence, you need only remember 2 digits—5 and 4—and the pattern—that the first digit appears 3 times and that the last digit is 2 lower than the first.

5. This sequence is similar to the previous sequence, but now we have 3 groups.  The first 2 groups consist of 3 notes, in which the second is the same as the first and the 3rd is 2 lower.  The third group consists of 2 notes, in which the 2nd note is 2 lower than the first.  But if you’re smart, you won’t stop there.  You’ll realize that the 3rd group has the same span as the first 2 but no repeated digit.


Studies have shown that animals such as chimpanzees can perceive similarities.  Furthermore, anyone who has ever called a dog by its name knows that animal perception of similarities extends to sound as well as sight.  Thus, if the digits in the fourth sequence were converted to notes of a scale, it is possible that even your pet could recognize its internal organization.


But the fifth sequence is another story.  To relate the pattern defining the 3rd group to the pattern defining the first 2, we must be able to think.


Thinking is important, and remembering that we are able to think is sometimes even more important.  How do we remind ourselves that we are able to think?  We don’t go around reciting interesting sequences of numbers to each other.  Numbers, by themselves, are just symbols.  We play music.  Music is real. 


When we listen to music, we have the opportunity to start from reality and build a conceptual hierarchy, and to do it so quickly that we don't even bother with words.  When we listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we don't stop to elaborate the similarities and differences between the 1st four notes and the 2nd four, but we notice them.  And we notice that the next group of four notes is similar to the first 2 groups in a new way.


Like other forms of art, music can express happiness or sadness, heroism or villainy, triumph or tragedy.  But only music gives us such an efficient reminder of our means of survival—the ability to think.  This is why music matters.


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