Sunday, September 25, 2011

Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus


World Science Festival (2010) Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus


This video of a talk from the 2010 World Science Festival asks whether our experience of music is “hard-wired or culturally determined”. The discussion is led by neuroscientists Jamshed Barucha, Daniel Levitin and Lawrence Parsons and musician Bobby McFerrin.

The talk begins with a general look at the parts of the brain which are involved in interacting with music. Across cultures, humans respond to music using the same parts of their brains, but the way in which our brains categorize what we hear varies based upon what types of music they have been exposed to. The panellists also briefly discuss the basic building blocks of music: rhythm, pitch and timbre. These elements appear in the music of all cultures. Daniel Levitin points out that certain intervals in music are near universal. The octave and fifth are apparent in the music of almost every studied culture including ancient Greece and Indonesian gamelan music. These are followed by the fourth and the third. Scales are typically constructed when the octave is divided into further intervals, whether equally spaced or unequal. Different cultures fill in the octave using various intervals but these four basic are often present.

Jamshed Barucha describes the patterns of recognition our brains create (synapses) in response to repeated exposure to musical scales. After forming these connections, the brain causes us to expect that the music we hear will fit into one of these categories. Even if only a few pitches are played, our brains automatically fill in the gaps, assigning a scale to the music so that we can understand it. In Western music, these scale categories include the major, minor and blues scales. A listener in India might expect a scale (or raga) featured in Indian classical music, such as the Bhairavi scale. In his research , Barucha asked participants from Western backgrounds to first listen to musical phrases using Indian scales and then to sing what they felt might be a natural conclusion to the phrase they have heard. At first, the Western singers completed the Indian phrase excerpts using only notes from Western scales. However, by the end of the study, a few were able to learn and use more of the Indian scale tones in their own singing. While our initial reception of new music is culturally pre-determined, our brains are capable of recognizing new scales and learning to use them.

Next, Bobby McFerrin performs an interactive piece where he engages the audience in singing a pentatonic scale. By setting up certain expectations, he is able to “train” the audience and then essentially play them like he would an instrument. McFerrin claims that no matter where he is performing, every audience is able to easily pick up the scale and participate.

Finally, Lawrence Parsons conducts an experiment on McFerrin and two volunteers from the audience. He plays excerpts from four contrasting pieces of music: Delirious by Prince, Traumerei by Strauss, Threnody by Penderecki and finally a sample of Sichuan opera. As the participants listen, a computer collects their skin conductance level. Levels were higher when the participant recognized the song, as well as when the music caused negative emotion, particularly stress and annoyance. Parsons concluded that the immediate response to a piece of music is affected by cultural exposure and familiarity with the particular piece or genre. Unfamiliar music tends to have a negative effect.


Barucha’s study on the response of Western musicians to non-Western scales was interesting to me because it demonstrated the brain’s ability to make new connections. Despite limited exposure to the classical music of India, the Western singers were eventually able to adopt more of the Indian musical conventions. As a Western musician from a non-Western background, this is particularly relevant to me as the music I perform is not the music I grew up listening to. Yet while my brain created synapses in response to my culture’s music at a young age, it has also been able to recognize the conventions of dominant Western music over time and increased exposure.

I was also intrigued by the responses of neuroscientist Lawrence Parsons during the live study he conducted on stage. The three participants were Bobby McFerrin, a Caucasian male non-musician named Forest and a South East Asian female amateur pianist. Interestingly, after the participants listened to the excerpt from a Sichuan opera, he asked the woman whether the music meant to her, whether she recognized it, whether she knew what it meant. To me, these questions seemed tinged with his expectation of her as a listener from a certain culture. While I am only speculating, it appeared that as he was studying expectation in music, Parsons approached his research participants with some expectation as well.

Finally, I leave you with a video clip from the panel discussion. The universality of music was debated in this talk and will continue to be debated as we seek to study the music outside our Western walls. While our cultural experience affects much of how our brains respond to music, Bobby McFerrin’s interactive performance is certainly convincing as to the universality of music.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I agree that the spontaneous musical interaction between Bobby McFerrin and the audience encourages the notion of universality in music.
The discussion on the commonality basic building blocks of music (i.e. rhythm, pitch, and timbre), particularly, the intervals, leads me to think of the Carl Orff's philosophy.

From an Orff pedagogical standpoint, one of the reasons for bringing the pentatonic scale into the music classroom stems from the idea that cultures around the world have music (traditional folk music) that involves the use of the pentatonic scale (or variations of it). Does this then reflect the audience's response to Bobby McFerrin's musical activity?

The discussion about how the type of music to which we have been exposed determines how our brain categorizes this information, speaks of the value of familiarity in music. On the other hand, as was described in Barucha's research, despite the fact that our initial response to new music is "culturally pre-determined," our brains are gradually able to recognize new scales, while making meaningful connections. The value of familiarity, then, is still in play, but in this case, meaningful context and continuous exposure to a particular type of music is of great importance.

When a non-musician or musician attends a classical concert, are they more likely to enjoy the concert if there are some familiar pieces? I would think so.

This discussion gives hope to the idea that music indeed is one way to build bridges towards cultural understanding.