What’s there to learn from TED this week? TED’s “Best of the Web” collection showcases speeches and performances gathered from across the web deemed worth sharing. Surely the viral hits TED collects will never be on the same caliber as the seventeen-second clip of “Surprised Kitty” or other similar hits on YouTube, but Bobby McFerrin’s performance of the pentatonic scale does come pretty close. With the participation of both artist and audience, McFerrin cleverly demonstrates the link between neuroscience and music during the 2009 World Science Festival.
Sometimes musical performance involves audience participation – when an artist stops singing, cuts all instrumental playing, and allows the audience to hear their own singing. Here, Bobby McFerrin invites audience participation in a completely different way; he uses the audience as his instrument of choice. Without much direction, the audience picks up cues and readily sings to the pentatonic scale.
Without proper background on Mc Ferrin’s whimsical performance, this featured video on TED may not seem like an idea worth spreading. However, McFerrin does more than just make a song and dance out of the musical scale. As part of an extensive panel discussion on the intersection of notes and neurons, his unconventional exercise in musical finesse deconstructs the fundamental elements of both music and thought.
It doesn’t take much effort for McFerrin to show the audience of scientists that, collectively and individually, they are not musically inept or tone deaf. They hit the right pitch for each note on the pentatonic scale as if it had been rehearsed. As McFerrin suggests at the end of the video, there are most definitely particular aspects of music that are understood across cultures, ages, occupations, etc. Pitch, rhythm, and timbre, three fundamental building blocks of music, are universally-understood concepts to musicians and non-musicians alike.
Like the audience in the video, most individuals have the capacity to instantaneously call to mind the notes of the pentatonic scale and sing them correctly. Music is a language of emotions, one that needs no words. As is the case, no singular part of the brain specializes in the production or appreciation of music.
However, what we find pleasant to the ear varies greatly from culture to culture. For example, when we consider pitch, the 5th and the octave are universally-used across cultures, while the 4th is a very specific building block of Western music. You won’t find that in Indian classical music, though, which involves complex rhythmic cycles that tend to be more extended.
It categorizes more than just culture, though. Music also reveals our evolution of recognizing emotion. Ask a friend well-versed in music theory what sad speech sounds like on the piano and she will play a descending minor 3rd. Ask her to portray angry speech through piano and she will likely conjure up a tune with an ascending minor 2nd. What’s striking about this is the lack of interval codes for happiness and pleasantness, which speaks to evolution. In our primordial days, it may have been more important to detect negative emotion than positive emotion.
The revelations garnered from studying the neuroscience of music are abundant and specific research on the neurology of musicians has already exposed differences between brain structures of musicians and non-musicians, but I’m still left wondering what would come from the neurology of Bobby McFerrin. Though best known for his hit song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Bobby McFerrin is also a celebrated classical conductor, improviser, and jazz musician. Mc Ferrin has mastered the art of improvisation and with an unmatched vocal range, he takes music down unforeseen avenues.
Take someone in the hop-hop world and ask him to beatbox. He will undoubtedly impress any young crowd. Ask Bobby McFerrin to beatbox and he’ll introduce his audience to a completely different genre of vocal percussion. He is music theory’s greatest advocate, for if there was ever such a thing as classical beatboxing, McFerrin would be the avant-garde leader of the genre. McFerrin’s classical beatboxing, with its mix of blues, Indian influence, tribal culture, takes improv in an unseen direction. The day neuroscience can explain how McFerrin oscillates between modal and falsetto registers to create polyphonic effects is the day researchers would be able to isolate the root of creative genius. TED’s inclusion of McFerrin’s adroit performance hearkens back to TED’s mission of spreading ideas. This one just happens to be a McFerrinism.
By: Dy Phi
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