“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

“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:

“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.