Timpany and the Fish

Stephen Jay Gould in “An Earful of Joy” recalls a moment of rapture while rehearsing Berlioz’s Tuba Mirem at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony. The “thunder of the timpany [….] entered the wooden risers under my feet and rose from there to suffuse my body; sound became feeling.” He continues, “I do not believe in distant phyletic memory. Yet, in an odd and purely analogical sense, I had become a fish for a moment. We (and nearly all terrestrial vertebrates) hear airborne sound through our ears; fish feel the vibration of waterborne sound through their lateral line organs. Fish, in other words, `hear’ by feeling–as I had done through a set of wooden risers with a density closer to water than to air” (96). As a former member of the brass section in a concert band, I remember when my own mortal coil has shivered from such vibrations. I thank Gould, an evolutionary biologist with a gift for analogy, for connecting that shiver to a fish’s sense of “hearing.”

Gould, Stephen J. “An Earful of Joy.” Eight Little Piggies. New York: Norton, 1994. 95-108.

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