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The philosophy of thinking in threes


'If my hands are closed, I can't imagine a piano piece'
Marvin Minsky Scientist
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Well, it’s been... mostly it seems as though it’s a separate thing and... very often... it’s not all the time, but often when I’m doing something I’m also improvising with some tune in my head or some… trying to imagine some sequence of chords and... it’s hard to explain because there’s something wrong with it, the way I do these things. I can imagine a chord when my hands are open, but if... in other words, I suspect... and… I could actually go and get a brain scan, I suppose, to see, but I think that the music processes that I’m running frequently are in the motor cortex rather than the sensory cortex. So if my hands are closed, I can’t think of a piano piece. But if I go like this, now I can imagine… and I think what must distinguish musicians of some sorts – including me – from most other people is that... when I was a child, I was very much interested in the idea of trying to think of two tunes at once. And as you…  we all know, most popular music usually has one tune going on, it’s a song. And then, there’s a rhythm section and percussion and there are other things accompanying it, but there’s usually a main theme. However, in the… in the times of Palestrina and Bach and Beethoven, in the classical music, there was more concern with trying to have more than one thing going on and... the ultimate complication of that is in the traditional four part fugue where you’re running four things at once. And the question is, can anyone actually think four things at once, and it looks like Johann Bach and a few other composers were able to do that.  And quite a few modern composers are able to imagine several themes going on, but they’re not... well, I don’t know what they imagine, but I think somehow this unconscious or semi-conscious preoccupation with trying to think several musical things at once became a habit with me. I never got very good at it in the sense that I can’t… I can't think of three tunes at once. I can improvise it and fool musicians, but really by the time when I start to bring in a third idea, one of the other two starts to weaken and just become extra notes in a chord.

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was one of the pioneers of the field of Artificial Intelligence, founding the MIT AI lab in 1970. He also made many contributions to the fields of mathematics, cognitive psychology, robotics, optics and computational linguistics. Since the 1950s, he had been attempting to define and explain human cognition, the ideas of which can be found in his two books, The Emotion Machine and The Society of Mind. His many inventions include the first confocal scanning microscope, the first neural network simulator (SNARC) and the first LOGO 'turtle'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Johann Sebastian Bach, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, , Ludwig van Beethoven

Duration: 3 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: 29-31 Jan 2011

Date story went live: 13 May 2011