2022/Apr/28 Sushi, Brain, Bach

Sushi, Brain, Bach

Joshua P. Klein and Edison K. Miyawaki

Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work.
–L. Thomas, The Medusa and The Snail

I have always intuitively felt there was another and quite different yardstick for measuring consciousness . . . musical taste.
–D. Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop

ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane? LANE: I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.
–O.Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Tony restaurant at the intersection of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues, Boston. Corner table. Two gentlemen in a conversation which hints at the unnecessary overeducation prevalent among many in this locale of the city. A young waiter with tattooed arms and spiked hair serves uni, a sea urchin delicacy delivered just today, so the waiter reports, from Hokkaido, Japan

HEDONISTIC MATERIALIST (henceforward, HM). Extravagant. I assume you will be paying for dinner.

EXISTENTIAL ESSENTIALIST (henceforward, EE). We’ll split the bill, as usual.

HM [partaking the uni]. You really should pay the entire amount this time. You earn so much more than I do; you perform brain surgery on the defenseless and get paid excessively for it. Those with more should sacrifice for others. Otherwise, it’s unfair, like achieving tenure without intellectual gift whatsoever. The uni, I must say, is perfect. It’s a sweetbread in texture.

EE. It is not a sweetbread. You anatomists are too anatomic. I prefer not to think about the anatomical part in question. I rather think of it as the essence of the sea.

HM. I wonder if it really is “just in” from Hokkaido, Japan. Perhaps they’re trying to justify the price? How do we know, in fact?

EE [partaking uni]. Know what?

HM. Whether it comes from northern Japan. I’d also be curious to know the specific geographical source on Hokkaido. As you know, it is a very large island.

EE. You are missing the essence of this experience.

HM. I rarely miss anything. All details are my passion. You spoke of “essence.” You referred to the sea, but I think oceans lack “essence.” A sea or ocean is essentially large, very salty, and, in places, remarkably deep, with currents, based on what I have read on the subject.

EE. I like uni. If it’s of the highest quality, I like it even more. At its very best, we have the essence of brine.

HM. What we have here are the reproductive organs of a sea urchin, with the consistency in the mouth of a thymus gland or pancreas. As it happens, the taste is pleasing. But: let’s not hear about the essence of anything alkaline.

EE. As often happens when I discuss important subjects with you, the way you think in your horrid laboratory infects your experience of pleasure and everything else. Life is not a room of morbid anatomical specimens. I think that you survive your own laboratory only because you spend so much time outside of it.

HM. I am surviving, thank you. And now that you have asked, my lab has recently produced work that will win prizes, and may be funded soon by a government entity. The postdoctoral people in my laboratory work night and day, so they tell me. In brief, we have discovered ...

EE. Care for some saké? It is from Niigata, south of Hokkaido.

HM. Thanks. [Drinks.] As I was saying–and I’ll pause for a moment after what I say, so that you may catch your breath–, we have discovered an anatomical principle in the brain. I mean: a novel anatomical principle about the human brain. [Sips again.]

EE [languidly]. A new anatomical principle? I thought the old one was perfect. The last time I looked, anatomy does not change, unlike our weather or what people call “life.” The fact that anatomy does not change is one of its more charming and reliable aspects. I believe, in fact, that all humans have shared human anatomy for a very long time.

HM. Please try not to interrupt with obsolete information. [The same waiter delivers maki. HM lifts a piece into the air with chopsticks.] Consider this maki.

EE. Whatever you say, please make it improbable.

HM. This maki is a roll with 3 concentric layers. There’s a thin outer skin of seaweed, then rice, then some kind of gourd inside.

EE. Yes, it is the essence of individual packaging. What’s more, it possesses–what do they call it? Umami. I believe my pronunciation of the Japanese is correct.

HM. At random, you hit on something important, the gourd of the matter so to speak. One says colloquially that a person has depth–or lacks depth, in some pedestrian instances. There may be something to the trite notion. It might be better to discuss the depth and indescribable harmony of layers in any given brain. My lab is hard at work on the complexity of the subject. We will describe the indescribable.

EE. I don’t understand how maki sushi is complex. Perhaps I’m in need of further evidence. [Takes another piece and pours himself more saké. As he eats and sips, his expression exudes contentment.] HM. Allow me to elaborate. Indeed, I had planned to elaborate even before the uni arrived from some unspecified location on Hokkaido. “Layers” is not quite the right term, in any event. One must try to be as precise as possible. At least since the Enlightenment, and possibly earlier, in whatever relative darkness preceded it, our science has struggled to understand how anatomy of the brain explains, for example, . . . the very thing you seem to be experiencing at this moment.

EE. It is called slight intoxication. It’s not unpleasant.

HM. It’s more complex than inebriation. The saké is irrelevant; your tolerance for wine and spirits is legendary. My good fellow, how well versed are you in music? There’s a rumor on campus at that you play some prime number of musical instruments, all in some virtuoso way. Seven, I’ve heard–some stringed, some keyboard, a kind of horn, and even the sitar.

EE. The correct number is a lesser prime.

HM. Excellent. Then you can help me advance my research on the new anatomical principle of human brains. Consider the following: do you have any idea what it is? [Extracts a piece of paper from his linen blazer pocket.]

figure 1

EE. Goodness, you came prepared this evening. Fortunately, I don’t fear modest work mixed with pleasure. It’s a musical chord, obviously. A C-major chord, to be exact.

HM. Can you hear it?

EE. In a manner of speaking, yes. It’s a nice chord.

HM. The noise in this restaurant has distracted me; I didn’t hear it myself. Could you hum it for me? EE. You are trivial. I am capable of many things, but I’m afraid I can’t hum in five parts all at once. HM. So, how could you hear it, in a manner of speaking?

EE. I imagine myself playing it on a piano, and, because I play the piano, I have a sense of what it sounds like–in five parts. By “parts,” I mean that the score instructs me to play all five notes at once. The chord consists of five notes or parts, two in the bass clef and three in the treble clef.

HM. Would you say that the chord has “layers” and “depth”?

EE. Those are terms that a critic might use. I know that you are toying with me. You know full well that it is a C major chord, and from the lowest note to the highest we have: C, C an octave above, E, G, and an even higher C. I suppose the third interval from E to G and octaves on C have a kind of depth, when played altogether. One could speak of layers of sound so produced, as a writer for the Times might insufferably describe levels of meaning in a nondescript work of art. But such wordiness essentially misses what’s in front of us. It is a C-major chord–nice, in its C-major way.

HM. The adjective is curious. Nice-ness and musical notation don’t seem to go together, at a glance. In the chord I provided, there are three C’s across two octaves. Pluck a taut string and you achieve a note; pluck the same string at half its length and you get the same note, one octave higher. I fail to see the quality of human beneficence in an octave. You will grant, perhaps, that describing the anatomy of a chord falls short somehow. Describing the anatomy of the brain is no less quixotic. Yet, anatomical knowledge–which is to say, a knowledge of parts–is not useless, I’m glad to say–especially when we introduce the element of time.

EE [contemplating a plate of akami sushi, just delivered. Each slice of crimson, lean tuna reflects ambient light in scintillations on the surface of the taut slice, suggesting freshness. Cézanne would have loved to paint akami even more than fruit.]. The element of time? We needn’t belabor the subject. The chord lasts four beats in common time, and that’s all. [Eats a whole akami sushi in one definitive bite.] I am quite enjoying this experience with you, but I must report that there is no substantive relationship between sushi and brain anatomy. The anatomy of really fine sushi, such as we are consuming, is one kind of truth, and the anatomy of the brain is another kind of truth, but the truths are unrelated.


HM. An intricate beauty is their point of contact. I will grant you, however, that well-constructed sushis amount to just so many chords–each, however, with the nicety of structure: one thing on top of another in a neat stack. Of course, a chord is not the entirety of music. As an illustration, I will have you comment on the following eight bars of music [methodically pockets his first piece of paper, then withdraws a second sheet from the same pocket]:

Figure 2


EE [examines the music, sips saké. An unusually long period of time passes during which HM consumes akami sushis with demonstrable pleasure]. Regarding your deceptively simple string of notes, there is much to be said.

HM. I look forward to deciding whether there is something in what you will say or absolutely nothing in what you will say.

EE. It might mean nothing to you. I am intrigued, however.

HM. As you explain your intrigue, as you call it, please do not overestimate my musical understanding. Later on, I will ask you not to underestimate the genius of thinking about the brain musically.

EE. Regarding your first request, I will endeavor to be basic. Regarding the second request, I promise nothing, at present. There is a form of genius in the sequence of these 32 notes. In the first measure, the notes are C, E, G, and C. Together, they amount to a C-major chord. The root or lowest note is C: by convention, this chord would be designated by a Roman numeral I; a capital “I” if a major chord, which it is.

HM. But it’s not written as a chord.

EE. True, but listen to me–and attend to the music that you have provided. In the second measure, again the first note is C, but the subsequent arpeggio of notes differs: C, F, A, and D.

D, F, and A make a triad; the F is a third interval above D, and the A is a fifth interval above D, similar to the intervals of E and G above C in the first measure. The chord can be identified by the interval from C; the interval is C to D, or one whole step up: by convention, the numeral “ii” identifies this chord–in lower case, because it’s a minor chord. The C that has remained from the first chord now has a different function. In this D-minor chord, C is a seventh interval above D, and a dissonant interval at that. The notes that we see–C, F, A, D–are in fact a D-minor chord, but with the seventh in the bass. In other words, the composer has inverted the chord in question.

HM. Much depends on how you answer my next question. What the hell are you talking about?

EE. Don’t be coy. You’re the one who provided me the score. Please consult your editions of music theorist Jean-Phillipe Rameau of 17 -century France, if you are confused in some way. He discerned that the chords may amount to the same chord, even if the relative position of notes changes. The chord elaborated in the third measure has B in the lowest position with a D and G above it, and another, higher D on top. The third measure is another example of an inversion–a different inversion.

HM [a bit emptily]. Of course.

EE. In the third measure, we have the following notes in sequence: B, D, G, D. You will notice that B, D, G is a kind of anagram for a G, B, D triad, a G-major chord. G is a fifth above C: so, the chord in the third measure is a “V” major chord, but the third above G (which is B) is in the root position, rather than G. So, B, D, G, D amounts to a G-major chord with the third (B) in the lowest position–another inversion.

The fourth measure returns us to simplicity; it repeats the first measure. We return to a C-major chord with the root, C, in the bass: the original I chord in C-major.

HM. Please confirm for me that we have a little melody in eight measures or bars, with single notes separated in time and space.

EE. Yes.

HM. So, how can you speak of C and D and G chords?

EE. Because there’s an implicit structure that plays itself out in time–in eight bars or measures.

HM. At last, a helpful comment. You are an anatomist just as I am, after all. In fact, you have discerned my new anatomical principle about the brain. I call it time-based structure, or TBS, although I’m in search of a more elegant moniker–maybe “time-structure basis,” possibly “basis of structure in time.” EE. I merely discuss music, the work of the muses. I don’t understand your TBS, TSB, BST, or whatever it is.

HM. Perhaps I am too obscure. Consider an immediate example: when you consume an excellent sushi, the flavors don’t happen all at once. There is a development over time, a progression of flavors in the few seconds during which we internalize the structure we call sushi.

EE. Yes, the process is called eating, with enjoyment.

HM. I ask you to think more broadly–or, simply, to dissect a process as it evolves in time. A brain exists in space; the mind evolves in time.

EE [with a perfunctory nod at HM’s last sentence]. By the way, I am not oblivious to the provenance of the musical notes. They are not yours. You have plagiarized from J. S. Bach, who is not to be confused with all the other musical Bachs–his children, his cousins, his cousin who was his father-in-law, his father, etc.

HM. I have extracted, not plagiarized, from JSB: to be precise, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Prelude in C-major from the first volume.

EE. But you have left out so many notes. Not that it matters to me. Even in the redaction, there is the essence of JSB, as you call him. You have labeled a measure in your score, and to that measure, marked “5," one may turn one’s attention. The notes are C, E, A, E. The E’s are octave-equivalent, so we could have C, E, A or, in thirds, A, C, and E. The chord must then be . . . an A chord, with A being a sixth above C. This “vi” chord is A-minor, but the third above A, which is C, is in the lowest position–yet another instance of inversion. Next: the interesting thing about the key of A-minor is its lack of flats and sharps, just like C-major. The key of A-minor, in fact, is called the relative minor of C-major–and, what’s more, the A-minor chord in the fifth measure is a fifth interval above D-minor (recall the D-minor chord, “ii,” in the second measure). The A-minor chord has a strong tendency to want to resolve to ii, or D-minor, just as a V chord tends to resolve down by the interval of a fifth, to C. But JSB doesn’t quite take us to D-minor . . .

[Mackerel sushi is served. EE attacks it. HM does not.]

HM. Ah, I am not a mackerel fan, not in the least. [EE consumes all the mackerel sushi. HM is somewhat taken aback.] What do you mean by “want to resolve”? You are deeply vague. By “resolution,” do you refer to some greater clarity, as in the resolution of a photograph, or, perhaps, to the resolution of some discord, such as the historical strife between, for example, the French and Germans? Yet, I believe the degree of conflict between those nationalities has been somewhat lessened by the European Union, so called. I merely ask for information.

EE. The answer to your superfluous question is: both clarity and less discord. To the Western ear, there are chords that are dissonant and chords that aren’t; dissonant chords tend towards those which possess greater clarity or less discord in the mind–presuming that a composer cares to be appreciated by the masses. Such was my meaning of “resolution”; I intended to articulate my definition, before you interrupted my train of thought.

We should proceed at present, without pause whatsoever, to the vexing sixth measure: the notes are C, D, F-sharp, and A. At first blush, I would call it a II chord in D-major, but, more accurately, it is more subtly constructed. In this inverted chord, the seventh above D, or C, is at the bottom; an F-sharp is a third above D, and A is a third above F-sharp, all in the key of D-major. But: the lone F-sharp (the only sharp or flat note among the 32 notes you provide) catches the eye. F-sharp is common both to the keys of D-major and G-major. One could also say that the chord as displayed in the sixth measure is the V chord in the key of G-major, whose root would be D. The third interval on D in G-major would be F-sharp; the fifth would be A, and the seventh would be C. And you recall, of course, that a G-major chord is a V chord in C-major. The chord, as it plays out, wants to resolve–to move, if you absolutely prefer a simpler term–elsewhere, I think.

HM. I wonder if I might order some tamago sushi. I’m devoted to tamago sushi. [Hails the waiter, as if there were a minor emergency at the table.]

EE. As you wish. It’s important for a meal to end well.

WAITER. Yes, sir?

HM. Two tamago sushis for each us, if you would.

WAITER. Yes, sir. Did you care for another bottle of the Niigata?

HM. How many have we had?

WAITER. I have lost count, sir.

HM. That will be all, then. Thank you. [Waiter leaves.] To have lost count of the bottles of Niigata seems careless. Where were we?

EE. Nearly done with your excerpt from JSB.

HM. I recall now: you were about to discuss musical notes needing to go somewhere.

EE. Notes and chords move through space and time, I will grant. But what is their terminus? The penultimate measure repeats the third measure, in G-major: B, D, G, D. The trained ear discerns the preceding F-sharp–the lone F-sharp in the sixth measure–resolving to G in the seventh measure and the preceding C in the sixth measure resolving to B in the seventh measure. And in the last or eighth measure, we have C, E, G, C. We end, in other words, in C-major, which is the signature key of the composition. Now, if you are quite done quizzing me about JSB, may I ask you to . . . summarize? HM. With pleasure. We have had, in specific order, uni, maki, akami, mackerel, and tamago at the last, though we await the tamago. The Niigata saké has been constant throughout.

EE. I would have hoped you were attending our discussion more carefully. In true summary, the notes you provided move through time and space in this manner, using the Roman numeral nomenclature: I, ii, V, I, vi, V of V, V, and I–or, more precisely, taking into account the various inversions and intervals: I5/3, ii6/4/2, V6/5, I5/3, vi6/3, V6/4/2 of V, V6/5, and I5/3.

HM. [The tamago sushi is served; HM and EE partake, in mirror unison. A few moments pass, during which they complete the last pours of the Niigata.] The progression of the chords by JSB is notable, is it not?

EE. Much of our music, before and after JSB–but mainly after JSB–, involves a I, ii, V chord progression–or a I, IV, V, I chord progression. A IV chord (F, A, C in C-major) is akin to a ii chord and in fact shares two of its notes. And, as you have just learned from me, “V” in C-major has a root in G, but the interval from C (one octave above) to G below is . . . a fourth interval.

HM. You have consumed an extraordinary amount of time–at my prompting, of course–deciphering 32 notes. You discuss chords as much as notes, perhaps out of expedient necessity. If we had a full orchestral score in front of us, with an order of magnitude more notes in it, a lack of appreciation of chords and their progressions would render us helpless to understand the musical markings on the page. Or do I misunderstand you?

EE. One could do what humans usually do: one could just listen and, as the case may be, either enjoy the music or not enjoy it. As listeners, we aren’t necessarily aware of all the chords, progressions, and other transitions built within a musical score. I suppose such knowledge isn’t necessary. Although, from my point of view, it is usually preferable to possess knowledge.

HM. Usually preferable? You possess an inordinate number of graduate degrees, all doctorates. Your resumé suggests not that you prefer knowledge, but rather, feed on it to exaggerated proportions. But there are limits, both to appetite and understanding. We simply cannot know how 100,000,000,000 nerve cells in a typical human brain accomplish anything. I would think that even you cannot elucidate the activity of 100,000,000,000 individual nerve cells over the course of a leisurely dinner. In fact, our science can barely explain, at present, how 32 nerve cells accomplish anything. Perhaps there is a species in nature whose brains consist of just 32 nerve cells. I have looked into the matter: there is a certain worm with 300–which, unfortunately, is an order of magnitude greater than 32.

EE. At the root of what you say, there is a misunderstanding. A nerve cell is not a musical note; there are no octaves or keys of nerve cells; there are no chords and no inversions of chords, no transitions of keys. The music for which JBS is famous is one kind of truth. How brains work is another kind of recondite truth. The truths are unrelated.

HM. May I prove you incorrect?

EE. Please try.

HM. I refer you back to the five-part chord. We started our discussion with it. Do you need to see it again?

EE. I don’t, thanks. It is the concluding chord of the prelude from which you stole your 32 notes. I know it well (it is a “I” chord), just as I would know an I, ii, V chord progression when I heard it. HM. How do you know?

EE. By dint of repetition over time. I have played music since I was young.

HM. So, a C note in bass, another C an octave above, an E, a G, and an even higher C–all these notes together–are not random?

EE. On the contrary, they cohere. They are organized.

HM. As a surgeon, in possession of all those barbaric instruments which you insert into people’s skulls, surely you must have a sense what part of the brain is vital to allow you to hear the coherence and organization of five discrete parts, by dint of repetition over time.

EE [indifferently]. Oh, the hearing part of the brain, I suppose: on both sides of the brain, since hearing happens in both hemispheres of the brain.

HM. But you said that I was trivial when I asked you to sing the chord for me. In fact, I still haven’t heard the chord, in the sense of actual hearing. Arguably, the notes of the C-major chord [points to his linen blazer pocket] remain mute, and indeed we don’t even have the chord in front of us, so that our eyes may examine it once more. It would be more accurate to say that you remember a chord. And if it is true to say that memory is in play–and I cannot be refuted–then, don’t we need to invoke some area of the brain having to do with memory?

EE. Ah! I performed a surgery there just the other day.

HM. I’d prefer not to know your schedule of professional activities at this moment. When you recall the sound of a chord or when you study a progression of 32 marks on a lined page, where in the brain is all that lucubration taking place? The hearing part, the seeing part, or the memory part?

EE. All those parts, one supposes.

HM. And all the information coheres in your understanding, as plain to your sensibility as the face you examine in your mirror each morning or the handsome familiarity of a I, ii, V chord progression. The brain, sir, does not consist of parts, though I myself have taught about parts and names of parts in my laboratory. I have done so fruitlessly, in retrospect, for too many years. If the brain consists of an absurd number of nerve cells, the individual cells, or notes, do not themselves make music. There must be resonances and progressions throughout a brain, through all its parts and layers, otherwise there would be no “mind” as we use and, so often, misuse it. I speak of progressions or movements like certain well-documented currents under an oceanic surface. Regardless, there are no notes, not a single cell unto itself as an island: every cell, rather, a part of the main.

I dare say that a familiar chord progression–I, ii, V, for example–speaks to us not by dint of time, experience, or the appreciation of music even over a lifetime. The familiarity has more to do with a process shared between music and the mind that hears it. Nerve cells activate just as notes are produced on a keyboard or other instrument: either a note is struck or not. Melodies ensue, in time. The melodies–or, rather, the progressions that make melody possible–are not random. Instead, patterns or progressions repeat over and again. The repetition is almost tedious, and yet musical scores built upon quite the same basic progressions vary, and can be as unique as the individual mind.

EE. The logical extension of your argument is that brains, as generators of patterns, are rather uncreative: there are I-ii-V-I brains or I-IV-V-I brains or I-vi-V of V-V-I brains–and such patterns account for much of the musical brain work in our Western tradition? Perhaps you overreach in your theory, at least to my taste.

HM. Melody, sir. You have forgotten melody. It is nerve-cell melody that makes us who we are individually, for better or worse. You and I are little tunes that we hum to ourselves. I consider myself to be of the Baroque period.

EE [introspectively]. It occurs to me, this very instant, that there is a place where they serve oysters organized by numbers: the larger the number, the smaller the oyster, and, mutadis mutandis, the larger the oyster, the smaller the number. We must reconvene there in the very near future. The freshness of the shellfish has been touted to establish a new high standard. I would be fascinated to learn your thoughts about inverse relationships, as in the classification of oysters by size. Perhaps there is a relationship between large theories and small thoughts and, mutadis mutandis, small theories and large thoughts.

HM. I look forward to our next dining experience. But, for tonight: let us indeed split the bill. The evening is well-nigh complete.

A bit about the Authors:
Dr. Josh P. Klein is the Vice Chair of Clinical Affairs and Chief of the Division of Hospital Neurology at Brigham & Women's Hospital and an editor of Adams & Victor's Principles of Neurology.

Dr. Edison K. Miyawaki is an assistant professor of neurology at Brigham & Women's Hospital and the author of many books, including most recently The Autumn Brain Seminars.