THE FUTURE OF MUSIC
Dr. Lester CN Simon
If you think Jamaica dancehall and rap music have a deleterious effect on young people today; that they are responsible to a large degree for antisocial behaviour and that you have seen the worst, kindly allow me to disabuse you of your ignorance and inform you that what you see today is like a children’s choir, maypole song and dance, or the quadrille, compared to what is around the corner.
To understand what is in store, you have to recall that you possess five senses: Hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching. In the future, you will not only be able to hear music and see it performed, you will be able to touch, smell and taste music. Utter nonsense, you say. Actually, there are people among you today who regularly experience these multiple sensations when they hear music. These otherwise normal people are said to have synesthesia (syn-es-the-sia) and they are called synesthetes (syn-es-thetes).
Synesthesia comes from the Greek root syn, meaning “together”, and aesthesis, meaning “perception”. It refers to the blending of two or more senses. About one in two thousand people are affected. Scientists are busy studying these cases and once the mechanisms involved are clearly understood, someone will exploit this new knowledge for practical purposes and huge financial gains.
Synesthesia is the theme of an article by Ramachandran and Hubbard called Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes in 2003 in Scientific American. Dr. Oliver Sacks devotes an entire chapter to synesthesia in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and The Brain. The basis of synesthesia seems to lie in cross wiring in the brain. The sensations from the five senses are registered in the brain in a number of stages and places or stations. Whilst there are different stations for all the five senses, some of the stations are very close together. Changes can occur to cause connections between brain stations that are close but usually functionally separate. It is also possible that these stations were once connected and in normal development they separate. Hence improper separation of the senses may be the cause of synesthesia.
Synesthetes experience various colours when they hear music. Some may see blue when they hear the note C sharp. Musical notes, intervals and chords evoke unique colours. In some, different numbers have different colours. The days of the week or months of the year elicit colours. Monday might be green, Wednesday pink and December yellow. Is Ash Wednesday ashen? It is suggested that everyone has some capacity for synesthesia, the mixing of the senses. We use metaphors and similes. Touching food can evoke a related taste. When you think of a cat, you think of it as fluffy (touching), having a certain shape (seeing), a particular odor (smelling) and emitting meows and purrs (hearing). It is the conjoining of these senses that occurs when you think of a cat, according to Dr. Ramachandran, a former Reith lecturer.
Dr. Sacks writes that this hyper-connectivity of the senses is thought to be present in primates and other mammals during fetal development and early infancy but it is normally reduced or pruned weeks or months after birth. This theory lends credence to the idea that a child in utero can sense music playing ex utero. Dr. Sacks references an earlier text in which a man was described as wearing a C-sharp minor coat with an E-major collar. He also relates the story of a child who became upset after receiving a box of coloured letters of the alphabet. They were the “wrong” colours. The mother agreed with the child. She was also a synesthete. But mother and child disagreed on which colour was correct for each letter.
An incidence of one synesthete per two thousand means that we have about forty of them. Assuming only twenty of them take part in carnival, be prepared to see some people display unusual reactions when the carnival music hits them. In the braver, newer world of music festivals and concerts, in addition to the visual displays to augment the music, there will be professional dancers in the audience to help you feel the music as you listen and watch the performance. All sorts of seemingly innocent, huge, scented candles will lightly perfume the air and special, scented plants positioned for you to smell and associate with the music. You will be served small, wafer-thin bits of exotic foods to help you enjoy the taste of the music.
In the future you will be able to go into a supermarket and buy a bottle of music of your choice. On the shelves there will be tubes of soul music, jars of jazz, sachets of golden oldies and classics, boxes of reggae, cans of calypso and soca, drums of steel band music and plain plastic bags (scandal bags, as Jamaicans say) of rap and dancehall music. You will be able to drink and eat music not only to your heart’s content but to the content of all your five senses; hearing, seeing and feeling the music as you enjoy the smell and taste of the musical beverage. It will be just like “the freshness of a breeze in a bottle”….until you realize that your music not only tastes like Limacol; it is Limacol.
Postscript: Let us have a safe and happy carnival. Our entire history says that we are carnival, which is the exponential conjoining of entertainment, economics, welcoming, creativity, survival, intellectualism, and so much more: Our culture.