Music and the mind


How does the human brain turn music into mental pictures? This was the question of the hour at the February 6 Chicago Humanities Forum lecture by Lawrence Zbikowski: “Birds, Spinning Wheels, Horses and Sex: Painting Images with Music.” Despite the snow outside, the talk managed to draw almost 20 people to the Gleacher Center.

The U of C music professor began by playing a short, lively guitar piece by Argentine composer Julio Salvador Sagreras. Displaying a portion of the score on a large screen, he pointed out that the nature of the piece seemed unclear because the fast, repeated notes included characteristics of both a musical study—written for guitarists to practice their technique—and a performance piece meant to impress an audience. Paired with the work’s title, “The Hummingbird,” Zbikowski said, the music aims to conjure images of a hummingbird in flight.

He then played and discussed three more examples of “program music,” composed to evoke specific images in listeners' minds. “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” from Charles Gounod’s Faust, imitates the repetitive motion of a spinning wheel. Franz Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s poem “Erlkönig” summons the pounding of horse hooves on a wild ride through the night. And Giaches de Wert’s seven-part madrigal based on Giovanni Guarini’s poem “Tirsi morir volea,” about an encounter between a shepherd and a nymph, suggests images of making love.

Our ability to interpret these images, Zbikowski explained, is linked to our capacity to make analogies, an idea he began to explore in his 2002 book, Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis, and continues to develop in his current research. In the same way that we understand the equivalent characteristics of two different situations—electrons orbiting an atom’s nucleus and the planets orbiting the sun, for example—we can imagine the quick, constant movement of a hummingbird in flight when we hear the rapid succession of notes in Sagreras’s piece.

Sarah Yatzeck, AB’01

Photo: Professor Zbikowski responds to audience questions after his lecture.

Photo courtesy Mai Vukcevich.

February 13, 2008