“The pianist and physicist Peter Pesic, whose fascinating book Polyphonic Minds: Music of the Hemispheres traces the role musical polyphony has played in man’s understanding of the mind.”
—Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times
“Unusually engaging and stimulating... One senses that Pesic is right, that there is something in the relationship between, on the one hand, music that has several but mutually dependent lines and, on the other hand, minds that are tangles of simultaneous thoughts and perceptions.”
--Paul Griffiths, Times Literary Supplement
“In a series of distinctive books published by MIT, he has looked at, thought about, and listened to the world. Wandering between the sciences and the arts, he has addressed fascinating questions such as why the sky is (seen as) blue…. Not only philosophy, but also social history plays its part in the complex mix that is this book.”
—Svetlana Alpers, The Key Reporter
“Polyphonic Minds convinced me that thinking about music, and polyphony in particular, can help us to understand what the brain does. The neurologist or historian who seeks a fuller understanding of the musical analogies used by scientists from Jules Bernard Luys to Buszáki will find no more capacious guide than this one. Indeed, Pesic’s purview is almost without precedent in musicology, and concerning polyphony it stands alone.”
—Ellen Lockhart, Isis
“A brilliantly original and courageous book. Pesic’s broadly interdisciplinary grounding is precisely the type of foundation upon which today’s music history should be built.”
—Craig Wright, Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Music, Yale University
“Fascinating and opinionated, Peter Pesic’s new book will change your concepts of how our species creates music and perceives it.”
—David Sulzer, a.k.a. Dave Soldier, Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry, Pharmacology, and Sound Arts, Columbia University
“Pesic describes Gould’s use of radio, the extravagant voices and silent multiplicity of Cage, and the adventuring in paralleling multiplicity of music and identity through Weber, Proust, Bakhtin and Bordieu. He connects this multifaceted polyphony with our ‘polyphonic brains’ in the last chapters, with neuroscience’s current theories, finally arguing that we should define a different category called ‘polyphonicity’ which, properly contextualised, seems a critical concept to understand current complexity.”
—Alessandro Ludovico, Neural magazine
Interviews and articles:
“Sacred choral music touches on deep religious, moral and political questions” The Economist, December 18, 2018
“Does Brahms’s Obsession With Rhythmic Instability Explain His Music’s Magic?” Interview with Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times, October 20, 2018
"Voices in our heads: Peter Pesic on polyphony," interview with Jennifer Levin, Santa Fe New Mexican, January 26, 2018
Polyphonic Minds: Music of the Hemispheres
Polyphony—the interweaving of simultaneous sounds—is a crucial aspect of music that has deep implications for how we understand the mind. In Polyphonic Minds, Peter Pesic examines the history and significance of “polyphonicity”—of “many-voicedness”—in human experience. This book presents the emergence of Western polyphony, its flowering, its horizons, and the perspective it offers on our own polyphonic brains.
When we listen to polyphonic music, how is it that we can hear several different things at once? How does a single mind experience those things as a unity (a motet, a fugue) rather than an incoherent jumble? Pesic argues that polyphony raises fundamental issues for philosophy, theology, literature, psychology, and neuroscience—all searching for the apparent unity of consciousness in the midst of multiple simultaneous experience.
After tracing the development of polyphony in Western music from ninth-century church music through the experimental compositions of Glenn Gould and John Cage, Pesic considers the analogous activity within the brain, the polyphonic “music of the hemispheres” that shapes brain states from sleep to awakening. He discusses how neuroscientists draw on concepts from polyphony to describe the “neural orchestra” of the brain. Pesic’s story begins with ancient conceptions of God’s mind and ends with the polyphonic personhood of the human brain and body. An enhanced ebook edition allows the sound examples to be played by a touch.