[In 2006, I was invited to bring bits and pieces of a provocative new play I was writing called 130 dB to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and have their third-year MFA acting students help parse through my rough drafts. The play remains unfinished today, even though a couple of my friends think it is perhaps the best script I have on the table right now. But I'm thinking it might take another year or more because it continues to be my most research-heavy play, and I want to make sure to do my homework because it will surely prove to be my most controversial. (I won't reveal the subject matter, alas.)
Since it's still a work-in-progress, nothing is set in stone—but I do know that the following monologue will not end up in the final version. It's a pretty good one, but doesn't really have a place in the play. (Indeed, this monologue doesn't reveal the subject matter either.)
The character is a 41-year-old music professor, who addresses the audience:]
I have been known to piss on people's parades.
When my sister announced that she was pregnant, I was the first and only family member to vocalize the fact that she was unfit to be a mother. When my best friend won the lottery, I quickly reminded him how much and how cruelly the government would tax his winnings. And when my wife managed to procure two front-row seats to see Prince in Boston during his last tour, I pointed out that the noise level at rock concerts could sometimes approach most people's auditory thresholds of pain and could result in permanent hearing loss.
So it's no surprise that, when Steven Pinker joined the Department of Psychology faculty at Harvard University, you could hear my eyes roll.
And my gray-clouded worldview seemed as inappropriate and unjustified in this situation as it always had been. After all, Professor Pinker—a Pulitzer Prize nominee—was, at the time, at the peak of his career, having written a series of bestselling books about language, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology.
But you know what?
All my colleagues—the entire music department—supported me because, for once, my cynical remarks and mean-spirited jibes had an air of righteousness. You see, Professor Pinker had suffered our disdain nearly a decade ago for statements he had made in his book, How the Mind Works.
In the book, Professor Pinker argues that, in terms of biological significance, "Music is useless.... Music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged." He goes on to describe music as "auditory cheesecake."
I don't know about you, but, to a handful of Harvard musicologists?
Them's fightin' words.
If Professor Pinker was some fringe lunatic who posted something online, nobody would've cared. But as an influential scientist, his opinions carried weight, especially since his research had moved out of the realm of academia and into the limelight of popular culture.
Interpret his words as you wish, but to me, to us, he was basically saying that there is no way to prove that music matters, that there is no way to prove that music has any significance outside of stimulating neurological pleasure zones.
We are the things that we love. And when someone tells you that a thing that you love has no demonstrable value, he is essentially saying that you have no demonstrable value.
I was at a cocktail party that Professor Pinker was at recently, one filled with a mishmash of Harvard intellectuals from different fields of study. When I saw him from across the room, right then and there, I wanted to march up to him and wring his neck and scream, "Music is important! I am important!"
But of course, I knew that Professor Pinker was essentially right. I couldn't prove it.
It doesn't matter that music has been a part of every culture that has ever existed. It doesn't matter that some scientists argue that music even predates language as a form of communication. And it doesn't matter that music is considered by many religions as an effective means of prayer.
Indeed, trying to prove that music makes any kind of difference in the life of a human being is like trying to prove the existence of God.
As I sat in my chair uncomfortably the whole night, nursing a gin and tonic, I observed Professor Pinker eyeing the cheesecake on the dessert table all night while holding court among the star-struck.
His eyes darted back and forth from the people who were fawning over him...to the dessert table, as the night progressed and as the slices disappeared. When there was only one slice of cheesecake left, his eye movements went into a frenzy, and I could see that he was desperately trying to break free from the conversation he was stuck in so that he could attack the dessert table.
But before he could do it, I got up, made a beeline to that last slice of cheesecake, and swiped it off the table. A wave of visible disappointment fell over Professor Pinker's face.
I went back to my chair and fed myself the cheesecake slowly, one small piece at a time.
I've never liked cheesecake. But that night, it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.
And I don't even have to prove it to you. For you to know. That that is true.