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A philosophy of sound

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13.04.2021

When John Lennon was asked in 1975 why so many adults disliked rock and roll, calling it the ‘devil’s music’, he replied: ‘I always thought that it’s because it came from Black music.’ Reflecting on the past 400 years of white supremacy in the United States, including the recent attempted insurrection at the US Capitol in January 2021, I often wonder what Lennon would say of us today. Would he tell us to ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ or would he sing ‘Stand by me’? Would he cry ‘Mother’ or remind us that love really ‘is the answer’?

I am a professor of philosophy, and I have always thought in sound. Allow me to fine-tune, in my own way. One of the distinctive features of my cognition is that not only do I think with sound and music; I also don’t think in images during my waking hours (although I dream vividly and visually at night). This lack of visual imagery is known as aphantasia, partial in my case. Along with another condition known as mild auditory processing disorder, my learning differences have resulted in tremendous difficulty and inconsistencies in reading, writing and, sadly, even speaking at times. I specialise in the thought of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and I often wonder what he would have done with the aphantasiacs. He understood that the working of the imagination – often believed to be the source of mental imagery – can either enhance or weaken one’s ability to thrive, depending on which ideas of reason they were paired with. Indeed, I completed my doctorate only because of patient teachers who care deeply.

It’s an odd thing to try to explain to others what it means to have the experience of an empty head while I’m awake. Experts in aphantasia call this a trouble with one’s ‘mind’s eye’. I disagree. Not only is consciousness irreducible to mere brain matter – as our ideas are not actual objects I can put into your hands – but my neurological particularities might also explain my connections to thinking in sound. We humans are not only made of words, as the music historian, jazz enthusiast and former graduate student in philosophy Ted Gioia demonstrates in Music: A Subversive History (2019). Gioia’s book has set the rhythm for my own thoughts on music and sound. The point is, if I can teach and work with challenging philosophical systems without the use of images in my mind’s eye, not to mention struggling with the words, then imaginative pictures (even imagining language) might not be as important to reasoning as some people think. Spinoza might agree: rational ideas have laws of nature uniquely their own.

I can’t spell or follow correct grammatical rules. Just ask my editor. Yet I can pick up and identify the sounds of almost any language easily, even if remembering the words is the problem. This ability has something to do with memory, but it’s been the case ever since my brain has been forced to arrange the words I heard into a semi-acceptable and then mostly acceptable communicating language. Memory experts understand that song and story together can enhance memory. Gioia writes in support of these auditory aids, noting the cross-cultural history of the use of rhythm and sound since the beginning of the human species. I can’t read music or do upper-level mathematics, but music certainly helped me to learn Spinoza’s Ethics, one of the most logically challenging systems ever devised in Western philosophy – a system that became quite obvious to me in its logical beauty and creative, affirmative force.

Even if I find language to be a challenge, music and sound can assist. I am an avid music experiencer, a sound adventurer, and a lover of almost every genre of music – although, like all of us, I do press repeat on some of my favourite songs and sounds. The pandemic has me reaching toward those I care for most, which at present concern the head and the heart. That’s also the name of the musicians featured here – and their songs serve as a hug, a thread of connection and a musical love letter to a dear friend and muse, far away.

As a child, I used to stare at the keys on my grandmother’s piano, teaching myself about sound and thought, often when I couldn’t find the right words to express myself or explain my experience. When I was very young, I heard words backwards by syllable. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I had my own language when learning how to speak? This ‘problem’ corrected itself within those first few years of life but, to this day, my 92-year-young ‘Grandma’ still signs some of her letters ‘Love, Magra’.

On my second piano lesson in my early 20s, right after graduating with a psychology degree and a few classes short of a double philosophy major, my gentle piano instructor said: ‘You’re a natural! Do you want a piano?’ He was offering me an upright baby grand from a 1960s commune. All I had to do was transport it. (Helpful hint: you can easily slide a large piano across the floor on........

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