Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Musical Brain

The Musical Brain. Dir. Christina Pochmursky. Perf. Dr. Daniel Levitin, Sting. Canadian Television (CTV), 2009. http://www.veoh.com/watch/v2067939348aKHTtY?h1=The+Musical+Brain

This documentary explores why the love of music is universal. It does touch on other musical studies, but this entry is solely based on Dr. Levitin’s study of a master musician’s brain.

Dr. Daniel Levitin at McGill University, was a musician and producer before deciding to enter into the realm of neuroscience. He was interested in studying the brain of master musicians. When Sting was in Montreal, he agreed to have Dr. Levitin study his brain in a MRI machine. Dr. Levitin conducted a study with three steps:

1.      Dr. Levitin named a song and Sting had to imagine the song as vividly as possible in his head.
2.      Dr. Levitin played a clip of music through headphones and Sting had to listen and enjoy.
3.      Sting was asked to compose a melody and lyrics for a new piece that he has never thought of before.

When Sting came to perform in Toronto, Dr. Levitin discussed the results with Sting. Dr. Levitin first began by telling Sting that his brain structure was normal. The first step of the study showed that even when Sting was asked to imagine a song playing, the musician’s brain was fully engaged and his visual cortex was activated. The second step of the study showed that when Sting knew the piece, the brain could predict what was coming up, but when he was not familiar with the piece, the brain was not as active. When Sting was asked to compose a melody and lyrics, the caudate was activated indicating that the brain was planning physical movements to the rhythm which was being perceived. The corpus callosum, which transfers data between the two hemispheres, was also activated. This was rarely seen in amateur musicians and non-musicians before, as they typically use the right side of the brain to process pitch and the left side of the brain for language. The better the musician, the more it spreads out between the two hemispheres.

Sting comments on how he is a visual person and when he listens to Bach, he can see beautiful architecture, massive chambers and palaces and imagines the space where the music is played. He also mentions how he has to keep an external metronome with his head or his foot when he is performing music. After receiving the analysis, Sting states how it is both fascinating and disturbing that a logical analysis is given to such a creative process.

Dr. Levitin’s first step of the study on imagining a song even without hearing it is very powerful because it studies what musicians can hear in our head is based on memory. Not only are we recalling the melodic line, but there is also rhythm, harmony, instrumental texture, timbre quality and the emotional feeling that it evokes within ourselves. Depending on our learning strategies – visual, aural or kinaesthetic, our brain will imagine the music from that area of the brain. In Sting’s situation, he was a visual learner, which allowed him to visual many images while he was imaging a piece of music. If they were an auditory learner, they would be hearing vibrations, instrumentation and tone qualities, while a kinaesthetic learner would feel movement throughout their bodies.

The results from the second step of the study indicate that the brain can predict information when it knows the piece of music. This does not infer that the brain is not predicting information when it is not familiar with the piece. I believe that our Western musical culture and influences has programmed our brain to better predict future musical experiences. If a piece of music from another culture was used in this study, results may differ.

As musicians, we are taught that rhythm is the basis and the melody line is an additional layer to the rhythm. I found it quite interesting that caudate was so lively when Sting was composing a melodic line. This may mean that musicians who are actively engaged in the creative process plan the body movement based on melody and rhythm.

As a teacher, we encourage our students to become more creative by working through the creative process. I view the creative process as something that naturally occurs from influences surrounding us. I wonder how the brain’s reaction to music would differ if this same experiment was conducted on students of varied ages learning musical instruments.

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