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Timeline: Qualia

James Stewart
We can all agree that this is the color red, but there is no way of knowing whether each of us experiences "red" in the same way.

Listening to music is an emotional experience, unique to each individual. I think we’ve all had a moment when a song, a piece, a singer, a band, an orchestra has touched our hearts, moved us in some way. We also realize that it’s not the same for everyone; different music speaks to different people. We can try to describe the way music makes us feel but I wonder if it’s even possible to really know how music effects someone else.


I was in 5th grade at a memorial service for my great uncle. My dad’s family heard that I played the saxophone and they insisted that I stand up and play a hymn near the end of the ceremony. I squawked out a version of “Amazing Grace.” It wasn’t great. Afterwards, my great aunt, my uncle’s sister, came over to me. She was deaf and signed that she wanted to hear me play. We sat down together and I played the hymn again with her holding the bell of the instrument in her hand. After my encore, she clapped her hands and looked at me with tears in her eyes. I always wondered what it was like for her to experience music that way.

Moscow, 1876, there was a tribute concert held for the author Leo Tolstoy. Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet was on the program and the composer and author sat side by side as the strings began to play the now famous second movement, Andante Cantabile. Near the end of that melancholic movement Tolstoy was so moved that he burst into tears. In 1917, the Zoellner Quartet visited Helen Keller. At her request they performed Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile as she sat with her fingertips on a tabletop, feeling the vibrations. She responded just like Tolstoy did, with many tears and emotions. What did the music sound or feel like to her?

These anecdotes raise questions not about what music is, but how music seems. We’ve talked a lot about music in objective terms, controlled frequencies used to express something or reflections of society and historical events. Now we’re talking about how music feels, which is much harder to nail down. In philosophy there’s a concept called Qualia; what it’s like to experience something at that moment. Cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett described qualia as “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us; the ways things seem.” Every individual has their own qualia, their own unique subjective, conscious experience. We can’t know that someone else is experiencing something in the same way that we are. We can find it difficult or even impossible to describe our experiences in a way that someone else can understand. Philosophers call this chasm between one individual’s qualia to another, the explanatory gap.

For example, how would you explain the color red to someone who has been blind from birth or is completely colorblind? What words would you use to help them see or experience red? Artist Neil Harbisson was born color blind. His eyes only see in shades of grey. But in 2004, with the help of many scientists, he installed a chip and an antenna to his skull. This antenna reads the frequencies of the colors around him and plays them as musical notes. Neil hears color and because of this implant he’s been called the world’s first cyborg. In June 2012, Neil gave a Ted Talk describing what it’s like to live with this extrasensory implant. “…after sometime all this information became a perception. I didn’t have to think about the notes. And after sometime this perception became a feeling. I started to have favorite colors. I started to dream in color.”

Neil experiences color differently than anyone else on the planet. For him, the visual world is an auditory symphony. “…the way I dress has changed, before I used to dress in a way that looked good, now I dress in a way that sounds good. So, today I’m dressed in C major.” I have no idea what it’s like to dress as a harmonic chord and chances are, neither do you. Just like we have no idea what Helen Keller experienced that day when she felt Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile or what my great aunt felt when I played “Amazing Grace” on my alto saxophone. We don’t know what’s going on in each other’s heads. We can only hope to describe our own qualia.

How about you? What thoughts or observations spark in your mind as you think about this concept? Leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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