music must-see

09Jun08

Just a public service announcement to readers in the UK with access to the BBC iPlayer and who missed the programme Imagine last week: Alan Yentob following in the footsteps of Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (US edition). There is just one day left to download it; you can then keep it for 30 days. Do it: it’s worth it. The streaming landing page is here.

I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with music over the past few years, not least trying to understand why I like what I like, how my tastes evolve, and what relationship there might be to my own cognitive function at different times. For example, for the past two months I’ve been listening almost exclusively to classical music radio, barely a CD and almost no pop.

The key points for us here in Imagine were the results of a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan of Alan Yentob’s brain while he listened to three different pieces of music: one that made him happy (Is This the Way to Amarillo), one that annoyed him (some angry heavy metal), and a piece with deep emotional significance for him (one of Strauss’s Four Last Songs sung by Jessye Norman (US version).

There were two unexpected results. One was that the first song didn’t annoy Yentob (OK, that was my conclusion). The second was that the fMRI scan showed Yentob’s brain literally “bathed in blood” during the most poignant musical choice; the first two songs activated regions of the brain more usually associated with music.

Then there was the autistic and blind pianist, Derek Paravicini, who’d come to music at an early age, and as an adult demonstrated extraordinary virtuosity — able to reproduce a piece of complex jazz immediately after hearing it for the first time.

But here you need to pay attention, because it was made plain — then sort of glossed over later by some Yentobian editorialising — that turning the early latent musical genius into what we saw on screen took years of patient mentoring by the music teacher; that his ability to express his musicality through the keyboard was painstakingly earned, and perhaps more so than for an unencumbered musician. The boy’s ability to coordinate and apply appropriate fingering had been deeply limited by his disabilities (blindness/autism). There is probably a whole separate programme here on the process of releasing latent talent, particularly among those with learning impairments.

Finally, a group of Tourette‘s syndrome sufferers, who displayed uncoordinated tics when gathered in a room, became immediately transformed and synchronised as musicians when they started a drumming exercise. This apparently supernatural effect suggests a deep-rooted social component to our experience of music, and one that I’ve sought out myself over the past few years as part of my own evolutionary fitness experiments. But I suspect my choirmaster would dispute how readily I become synchronised with my co-singers.

For those who can’t get the BBC, here are couple of YouTube’s. The first with Sacks talking about rhythm, and the second from Derek Paravicini’s website, which is ostensibly a UK TV documentary made specifically about him, featuring among others Jools Holland and Simon (not Sacha) Baron- Cohen.

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Tweet Researchers at Stanford University, California, have used fMRI scans to discover how the brain suppresses irrelevant memories in order to recall what’s really important. Counter-intuitive though it may sound, remembering something entails a cost for memories that are related but unimportant. As Anthony Wagner, Associate Professor of Pscyhology at Stanford explains:- This relationship powerfully […]


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