Notes and neurons

Some lively musical events have come out of a collaboration between two remarkable men. One is Bobby McFerrin, the son of two opera singers, who has a four-octave voice and the ability to produce any sound, from a bass guitar to a church congregation or a passing motorcycle. He started playing jazz piano, then trained as a conductor with Leonard Bernstein and others, before deciding to focus on singing.

He took part in the World Science Festival in New York in a discussion on the nature of music and its links with the human brain, and was able to provide a practical demonstration when the subject came up of the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale has five notes in the octave as compared to the more familiar seven, and the pentatonic sound is an old one, heard in some types of folk music and also in the Highland bagpipe. But it’s also used in jazz, blues and rock, and can be found in tunes from Amazing Grace to Ol’ Man River (and also The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry).

Equally remarkable is Professor Daniel Levitin of McGill University in Montreal. He is a neuroscientist who is also a record producer and musician, having prior to his academic career worked as a consultant to Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder and as a recording engineer for Santana and The Grateful Dead. He has fundamentally changed thinking about auditory memory, showing that we remember much more than we might think, so that even people without musical training remember tunes in the correct key (the Levitin effect).

Levitin has worked on and off as a stand-up comedian and joke writer, performing with Robin Williams and at comedy clubs in California. He has played guitar with Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, and saxophone with Mel Tormé, Sting, and Bobby McFerrin. And Bobby McFerrin came along to join the discussion at the World Science Festival and show the audience that they too could learn the pentatonic scale.

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