A Cognitive Scientist at an Organ Concert

Knowing the mind makes it less of a mystery, but no less of a masterpiece. This sentiment is akin to one recently expressed by Frazz cartoonist Jef Mallett in a gorgeous Sunday comic all scientists must love:

FrazzScienceAnd this sentiment captures the experience of attending my very first organ concert, Salem College’s celebration of the renovation of our 1965 Flentrop Organ. As a music novice, I was moved by the sound of the  organ itself and by the emotional quality of the music; as a cognitive scientist, I was amazed by the accomplishments of the organist, Timothy Olsen.

While the numerous books have been written about the human brain on music emphasize our love of and emotional response to music, I found myself more compelled by the skills required of the performer playing with both hands and both feet, and using pumps and doors to alter the sound.

Reading music is a cognitive feat to begin with, translating arbitrary notes on the sheet music to movements of the body in rapid time. The addition of feet on pedals adds a third layer of notes, requiring broad receptive attention to perceive three sets of notes. Playing music with the feet adds two more limbs to be coordinated, a stunning challenge for those of us still struggling to pat our heads and rub our stomachs without cognitive interference spilling from one hand to the other. Music is a brain-training activity, in more ways than one.

Salem College's Flentrop organ. Photo by Salem College.

Salem College’s Flentrop organ. Photo by Salem College.

Playing music with the feet alone would be remarkable enough, as musicians usually connect with their instruments intimately at the hand or mouth. These sensitive areas of the body did not become such musical maestros by chance; the fingers contain so many touch receptors that they can detect two points only 5 millimeters apart, and those touches are processed by an area of the somatosensory cortex that is disproportionate to the size of one’s hands. The feet cannot detect touches so close together, and the brain devotes less space to processing those touches, making it a challenge to detect the pedals and press them with just the right firmness…even before the feet are encased in dress shoes.

I’m sure the music and the atmosphere were a source of wonder for all present. I just felt my own wonder expanding with my awareness of the specific mental challenges overcome to create those chords and movements. Far from detracting from my enjoyment of the evening, it contributed to my anticipation during the applause, when for the first time in my life I looked around  willing someone to stand up, because I was not brave enough to start a standing ovation myself but thought one was so richly deserved.


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