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Hardcover | $38.00 Short | £31.95 | 344 pp. | 8 x 9 in | 132 b&w illus. | October 2017 | ISBN: 9780262036917
eBook | $27.00 Short | October 2017 | ISBN: 9780262342896
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Essential Info

  • Sound Examples

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. Pesic 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 experiences.

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 e-book edition allows the sound examples to be played by a touch.

About the Author

Peter Pesic, writer, pianist, and scholar, is Director of the Science Institute and Musician-in-Residence at St. John’s College, Santa Fe. He is the author of Abel’s Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability; Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature; Sky in a Bottle; and Music and the Making of Modern Science, all published by the MIT Press.


“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