Why do we hear music the way we do? Why do human beings make music in the first place? Are its various components things that can even be explained by science? These were topics covered in just one of the events, “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus,” at this year’s five-day World Science Festival from June 10 to 14. The festival was packing them in at events on topics like fMRI brain research, dark energy, quantum mechanics, microbiology, and behavioral science. Many of the presentations were affairs bringing together experts from diverse fields to bring their joint creative focus to commuter traffic, the earth’s atmospheric levels of CO2, and the question of nothingness.
So judging from the sellout response, New Yorkers are pretty interested in science—as entertainment, anyway, with renowned scientists mixing it up with Hollywood actors and poets and journalists and Juilliard-trained musicians in a sort of cross-cultural musico-scientific extravaganza. In the New York Times, Dennis Overbye covered the opening-night gala on June 10 at Alice Tully Hall honoring biologist Edward O. Wilson, often referred to as the father of the environmental movement. That starry event featured names like Alan Alda, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Glenn Close, and Anna Deavere Smith, and Damian Woetzel. Woetzel directed a multimedia performance of Frans Lanting’s LIFE: A Journey Through Time—setting the imagery of National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting to a score by Philip Glass, performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Marin Alsop.
A few nights later, I attended “Notes and Neurons” at CUNY’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater, moderated by WNYC radio host John Schaefer, where for two hours Bobby McFerrin—singer/performer/unclassifiable noise creator—and assembled experts addressed the questions like human response to music (hard-wired or culturally determined?) and the reaction to rhythm and melody (universal or influenced by environment?). All of them—scientists Jamshed Bharucha, Daniel Levitin, and Lawrence Parsons, and musician Bobby McFerrin—are among the experts who cover these topics in the new PBS documentary The Music Instinct: Science and Song.
There is something fundamentally amusing about watching three top-level scientists, a musically knowledgable radio host, and a comically endearing oddity like Bobby McFerrin, all arrayed on the same stage to talk about sound perception, pitch, and other music concepts as they relate to humans. The first thing McFerrin did when he got onstage was smile out into the black-box theater audience and do a mouth-popping noise. A few people in the audience mouth-popped back at him. Then he sang some improvisations, working in a bit from “Sweet Home Chicago” and another that sounded like “Flight of the Bumblebee.” His more-than-three-octave vocal range, plus the sheer range of sounds he can make with his voice and body, is always astonishing to witness. McFerrin conducted brief experiments with the audience to show how easy it is for people to follow cues about call-and-response type singing—audience as lab rat. Then scientists started throwing around ideas about music as a whole nervous-system activity (complete with a multi-colored chart giving an overview of psychological and brain processes for music), the evolutionary adaptive value of music and dance, downward pitch slopes used in human language to indicate negative emotion. At times when the science got a little heavy (there was a long explanation about the theory of expected auditory pitches from different parts of the world, focusing for a period on the flatted second interval), McFerrin would hum or make his unique sonic contributions (no other way to describe) from the stage. One discussion of human development of auditory systems centered on babies being able to hear music before they are born, meaning music preferences and expectations could be established quite early in life. This prompted a crack from Schaefer: “So if your mother is the female Milton Babbitt…?”
The most entertaining part of the evening was a demonstration by one of the scientists of galvanic skin response (GSR) to hearing different types of music. McFerrin and two people chosen from the audience became subjects, and were hooked up to a device that recorded their excitement reaction to music by measuring the skin through electrical conductivity. Devices were attached to their hands, a screen set up for us to watch live GSR data being created for each of the three, while they listened to four different kinds of music: Prince’s “Delerious,” Strauss’s “Traumerei,” Penderecki’s Threnody, and a bit of a Chinese opera. Though reactions varied from person to person, graphs generally indicated moderate excitement at the Prince song, very high excitement for the Penderecki (with its screechy string polytonalities … think of the opening music of the movie There Will Be Blood and you get the idea), and calm reactions to the Strauss. Reactions to the Chinese opera bit varied the most between the three (intended as a type of cultural-listening experiment). Three underutilized musicians seated onstage—a cellist, tabla player, and sarod player—played a short improvisation for the last few minutes of the evening. They were jointed by McFerrin and Levitin, who is a saxophonist. (Bharucha, a violinist, played earlier on during some demonstrations.)
One of the neat differences between scientists and musicians is how they demonstrate what they have learned to the public. Scientists spend hours, weeks, and years doing labs and field work, producing at the end some tangible evidence of research—graphs, charts, numbers, statistical analysis—that proves their view on a particular topic. Musicians spends hours, weeks, and years in practice and rehearsal rooms, emerging to perform publicly for audiences. But in a live performance, there is nothing tangible to hold onto after the last note sounds, no permanent documentation, no “lab report.” At that point, it’s all about perception and memory.