I turned on the car radio, and the cello sang out at me. The Sarabande from Bach’s cello suite No. 1 in G major. Not that I knew that until later. But the cello is my favourite instrument, so I carried on listening.
Mischa Maisky playing the Bach Sarabande.
After the piece had finished, the presenter discussed it with an unknown person who had clearly chosen the piece as one of several for the programme. They discussed how composers often had mathematical brains and were good at schematising, how this ability enabled the composer to see the whole piece of work from above. The two men considered the possibility that composers and musicians fell into two camps – schematisers and those who used music like some painters used paint and some writers used words, to convey emotions. My ears pricked up since this is a favourite subject of mine. The man being interviewed opined that truly great music was written by those with balanced brains who had both an ability to schematise but also an empathetic ability to convey emotions to the listener, thus pleasing both schematisers and empathisers in the audience. I was hooked.
The next piece of music (The Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem) illustrated the emotions that music could convey. After this piece the interviewer asked the man being interviewed about his relationship to Ali G. Ali G is a character created by the British comedian. His real name is Sasha Baron Cohen.
The penny dropped and I smiled. This moments of serendity seem to happen to me an awful lot. Sasha Baron Cohen is the first cousin of the Cambridge psychopathologist and expert on autism, Professor Simon Baron Cohen, and it was he who was being interviewed. I had been thinking about Simon Baron Cohen’s work a lot this week as it was he who proposed that Asperger’s syndrome and autism were at the male/schematising end of a continuum with its opposite end occupier by females/empathisers, and I had recently written a post about Asperger’s. I was very happy that I had happened to be driving alone in the car at this very moment, and that I had chosen to switch on the radio, and that it was still tuned to Radio 3 (not my usual station) because I had been bored on the previous occasion and fiddled around with frequencies. I usually think these sort of coincidences are meant to be.
The next piece was wonderful too. About a year ago my husband and I spent a term of Sundays listening to music as part of an Open University course. The course introduced us to a range of music that we had never heard, but almost none moved us more than the music of the wandering Ashkenazy Jews. This music is called Klezmer and this is a piece by the Budapest Klezmer Band, not the same piece played on the programme. Imagine it accompanying a circular dance.
By now the two men were discussing why we so often turn to music to move us to sadness. Simon Baron Cohen agreed that he was more moved by sad music than by happy music, and there was a short discussion of the division in Western music between music written in a major scale (intervals between notes of tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone) and music written in a minor scale where the intervals in the (natural minor) scale are tone-semitone-tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone. Music written in a minor scale strikes us as sad, whilst music written in a major scale is triumphant, happy music. Simon Baron Cohen says he would like to carry out research with very young babies to see whether this is a habit acquired in the West, or whether it is an instinctive universal truth. This is also an obsession of mine, though my own observations with my two children when they were very young, and with our family dog, is that it is an instinctive response. Our dog only howls along to minor music and can clearly distinguish between the two. My elder daughter used to insist that some songs or music (by John Denver in particular!) were switched off because they made her sad. I wondered how much it would cost to fund the research, because nobody seems to have an answer and I would so much like to know. The most reasonable explanation I have come up with is that when we speak about sad things we speak them in a minor key, and so we associate music written in the same key with the sadness of the spoken word. It is fairly easy for a child to tell that sad emotions are being expressed in the words spoken since the sadness will be reflected in the person’s face and the child’s mirror neurons in the their brain will reflect that sad expression back to them. Which rather begs the question whether babies have to learn to be sad, or whether that, too, is instinctive hardwired … You see how my thoughts run on, provoked by the short discussion. Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber and his brother Julian, with all their millions, could fund the research?
The next piece was my second favourite instrument. The piano. The 2nd movement (Adagio) from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no 8 in C minor, called “Pathetique”. Baron Cohen explained how he experienced this piece as a complicated interplay between the sad, bass clef of the left hand, and the more optimistic upbeat chattering of the treble clef in the right hand.
One of the final pieces in the programme was a recording from Belsen just after its liberation by the British Second Army on April 20th, 1945. The recording was broadcast by the BBC and a copy of the recording on an acetate disc was discovered decades later at the Smithsonian Institute, New York. If you wish to listen to it, you will need to register for a free account here.
You can listen to the whole programme which includes an introduction to Professor Baron Cohen’s theory on autism (and see a complete play list) here for the next seven days…