Sound and The Hard Problem

Embed from Getty Images

Monday Morning Musings:

 “Out, out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

–William Shakespeare, Macbeth, (Act V, Scene v)

“Someone tells you you can run the film backward billions of years to an enormous bang and nothing but particles joining up into big clumps like this one one, except not like this one—because on this one the chemistry came alive and kicked into an algorithm that kept unspooling till there was you collecting spit from a poker game, and you don’t bat an eyelid.”

–Tom Stoppard, The Hard Problem


Scientists tell us that the universe was created with a bang,

Not with a whimper. Although who knows, for sure

What existed before our world?

Was there a before?

Or did time begin then, too?


Who heard the dawn of the universe?

Was there another universe

With other creatures who lived then?

Did they have wings to fly about their planets?

Were they shaped in the image of the gods

That humans fashioned?


Now scientists have re-created the sound

Of our universe’s birth.

Did sound exist before then?

Was there anyone, anything

Who felt that shock

The birth

The first cry of the newborn universe?


I ponder the glory of sound

And what we do for music,

Tapping out rhythms with a pencil

On a desk

Singing nonsense songs

To babies.

Humans throughout time

Talking, whistling, singing

Infants reacting to our voices

Even in the womb.


Animals, too.

Cats meowing to humans,

Whales singing to other whales

Wolves howling

Birds chirping,

Learning new songs

To communicate.

They have dialects, you know.


When I was young

We had one telephone with a long cord

And an extension in my parents’ bedroom.

When my mother was a child

They did not have a phone

Until her parents got one for their store.

But people want to connect

To hear voices

And sounds.

In the old Soviet Union,

People recorded rock and roll on X rays

Black market trade in sound

On bones made visible by light.


I wonder at the beauty of our Earth.

As we drive over the bridge

Heading west, the clouds so low

I feel that I can almost touch them.

A trick of mind and perspective

Light bending

Mind bending

Well, I have no spatial sense

That’s why I almost failed geometry.

But I’m great a memorizing

And I understand logic

And beauty

And the sounds of nature too,

As we know it here

In our tiny part of the universe,

The tumbling of waves,

The patter of rain

The buzzing of a bee on

A sunny summer day.


We see a play,

The Hard Problem,*

Leave it to Tom Stoppard

To tackle the subject of

What is consciousness?

How does the brain

Differ from the mind?

We listen intently

A man plays a saxophone


Or are they hopeful, riffs

Echoed and echoing

During the scene changes

We discuss the play afterward.

While drinking coffee—

(Hear the perking

Smell that divine scent

Taste its flavor)

I think of the movie,

Ex Machina

Can an android truly think?

Yes, machines can play chess.

Certainly, they can hear,

But what does that mean?

It senses vibrations.

Can a machine truly feel?

The tree falls in the forest

The big bang occurs

Would other beings cry

If they heard Barber’s Adagio for Strings?


25 thoughts on “Sound and The Hard Problem

  1. “Adagio for Strings” is one of my favorites – sweet and plaintive.

    Obviously you had a lot of fun combining the different senses, almost “making moonbeams audible.” Thanks for the food for the mind today, nourishing as always.

  2. The first thing that popped into my head reading your lovely post was the tree falling in the woods with nobody present.We only perceive by what our senses allow us to. I couldn’t imagine the beginning of a universe. It’s beyond the scope of my brain.

  3. Lots of lovely food for thought here. A great way to start my week. Thank you.
    I have little to no spatial sense either. I use that as my excuse for being unable to parallel park. 🙂

  4. I don’t know why I did this, but I started the music before reading … and it served as a wonderful background to your words. It was like I was visualizing creation. Nonetheless, a difficult concept to truly imagine. … thus answering the tree in the forest question is much easier. Great thought-provoking post!

  5. As you usual, an another intelligent and thoughtful and thought-evoking post.
    I have been in the dreadful habit of staying up to something like 1.30 am while we’re on holidays and last night I watched a series of documentaries, which I blame for last night’s failure. The last one was about a group of young deaf people and how they approached their deafness and also their thoughts about cochlear implants. Their were people from all deaf families and also ones who were from hearing families, including an identical twin who became deaf through his premature birth but the twin could hear. In one of the deaf families, they were all getting cochlear implants and she got hers during the documentary and they walked us through the process, which was fascinating. The implant works best when they fit it to their better ear but then they have no hearing in that ear until it gets switched on I think a month later. So with the switching on process, they go from having some hearing. None to their implant working. This girl had never heard her own breathing before or knew that when you rub your hands together, it makes a sound. I really felt so privileged to be brought into her world.
    I went through a not dissimilar process in my mid 20s when I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain and had a shunt fitted and I remember that took some adjusting to as well. Rather than feeling someone turned up the volume, I felt things went the other way and I was much quieter afterwards. I am still an extrovert so people find this hard to believe but when you’re brain is being squashed, it can’t but have an impact.
    I can see a definite post developing out of this.
    Merril, I thought you’d appreciate those insight into the deaf world as would other readers. I think that’s what makes many of us writers and readers. That desire to see the world through someone else’s eyes, shoes, ears and skin.
    Hope you’ve had a great week. I have been immersed in scouts this last two weeks and getting our son’s room renovated and I have just ten days until both kids start at their new schools. I am very conscious of potentially doing the splits and banging my head.
    xx Rowena

    • Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment, Rowena, and for your kind words. I can’t imagine what it must be like (seriously can’t imagine) to go from NEVER having heard sound to suddenly being able to hear. I was particularly struck by the story of the identical twins, and I wonder how not hearing and then hearing might have affected their identities and “twin-ness.” I’ve also read that some in the deaf community are sometimes against implants.

      I’ve been very busy this week finishing a test assignment and some other work–that I need to get back to work on now.

      Good luck with getting your kids off to their new schools. I’m thankful to be done with that. 😉 Hope your head is safe! Haha

  6. Gotta like any post that quotes Tom Stoppard or finds a way to slip him and one of his plays into a poem. Haven’t seen or read “The Hard Problem” but it is not on my to do list (if I had one).

    You’ve done a wonderful, wonderful job pulling abstract concepts into the personal life. No easy task.

    String Theory (or M Theory) basically says everything is composed of the differing vibration of strings (which experts say are so small we’ll never develop the technology to verify their existence…arghh), which I have thought would account for our attraction to music and harmony.

    A documentary I recently watched on quantum biology showed how, among other things, it is the vibrations from the molecules our nose captures that kicks in how it smells – so we are literally listening to the smells around us.

    “People recorded rock and roll on X rays / Black market trade in sound / On bones made visible by light.” This is pure brilliance (and a fascinating fact.)

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and very kind comment.
      “Listening to the smells around us”–that is wild!
      At the same time, we know taste and smell are related, and there are people who smell, taste, and feel colors or music. So perhaps it’s not all that wild.

  7. You sound like my youngest who has a penchant for posing questions about time and the universe that nobody can answer. You put these musings together into a beautiful poem, with a soundtrack of Barber—lovely!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.