Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Name That Tune

Remember that old TV game show Name That Tune? Contestants were given snippets of music (and sometimes clues and bits of lyrics, if I remember correctly) to see which of two contestants, champion or challenger, could name popular melodies in the fewest notes. The winner won "fabulous prizes" and the chance to compete again on the next episode. How many of us who were cognitively aware and had access to a television in the seventies don't have at least a dim recollection of the famous line, "I can name that tune in seven notes" (or six, or five, on down to one?) In the third round, there was a bidding war to see which contestant was willing to guess the tune off the smallest amount of auditory information. I remember there were actually people who managed to pull off the feat of naming that tune in one note. I don't think anyone ever ventured into no notes territory, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't an option--although had it been, we might have seen the rise of the psychic hot-lines a little sooner than we did. (Whatever happened to the "psychic buddy" lines anyway? I wonder if they saw their own demise coming and divested their assets?)

Anyway, all of this Name That Tune talk is just an intro to a more serious musical discussion. A reader tip sent me to Collision Detection, a science, tech and culture blog written by Clive Thompson, whose article, recently published in the New York Times (don't hold that against it, okay?), and reprinted in his blog, examines the work of Dr. Daniel Levitin, platinum record producer and music scientist at McGill University. From Thompson's description, Dr. Levitin's work centers on the emotional psychology of music, why music has such an emotional effect on us, and why the way music affects us changes when we actually see the musicians at work as well as hearing the sounds they produce. His studies are venturing into previously uncharted territory (pun intended, much to my shame) in the science of sound, and has the potential to help answer some rather important questions:

Ultimately, scientists say, his work offers a new way to unlock the mysteries of the brain: how memory works, how people with autism think, why our ancestors first picked up instruments and began to play, tens of thousands of years ago.

Levitin's stint in a punk band led to his branching out into production, and finally into the study of music as a scientific field:

Producers, he noted, were able to notice impossibly fine gradations of quality in music. Many could identify by ear the type of amplifiers and recording tape used on an album.

"So I started wondering: How was the brain able to do this?" Dr. Levitin said. "What's going on there, and why are some people better than others? And why is music such an emotional experience?" He began sitting in on neuroscience classes at Stanford University.

According to Thompson he began designing musical experiments, bringing his real world experience into the science of it all, which enhanced his ability to address the question of emotion and music:

Traditionally music psychologists relied on "simple melodies they'd written themselves," Dr. Levitin said. What could that tell anyone about the true impact of powerful music?

For his first experiment he came up with an elegant concept: He stopped people on the street and asked them to sing, entirely from memory, one of their favorite hit songs. The results were astonishingly accurate. Most people could hit the tempo of the original song within a four-percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch, a level of accuracy that wouldn't embarrass a pro.

As Thompson explains, Levitin's experiments illustrated that people have an astounding level of memory for popular music, so he started really digging into the science of why, as well as the emotional connection. This is where things really get fascinating in Thompson's article. Dr. Levitin's work digs into exactly what happens in the brain when we listen to music, and he has charted the different sections of the brain's involvement, from the initial forebrain analysis of the tune and structure, to the release of dopamine by the nucleus accumbus and ventral tegmental, to the cerebellum's involvement with predicting where a tune will go and the tension it produces. He demonstrated to Thompson by playing a single chord from the song "Benny and the Jets," which Thompson was able to identify from that one musical clue. (Perhaps he should have tried out for the game show.) Levitin explained how this is possible, and all connected to the series of brain activity that he observed, and why pop music in particular triggers such a memory affect:

"When we saw all this activity going on precisely in sync, in this order, we knew we had the smoking gun," he said. "We've always known that music is good for improving your mood. But this showed precisely how it happens."

The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John's "Benny and the Jets."

"Nobody else's piano sounds quite like that," he said, referring to Mr. John. "Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important."

Dr. Levitin's experiments have moved on from there. He started looking at other questions: "Does the brain experience a live performance differently from a recorded one?", "...how much emotion is conveyed by live performers" and, in a classical performance, whether "...the conductor creates noticeable changes in the emotional tenor of the performance?" One of the really interesting questions that Dr. Levitin is currently addressing is whether there truly is a connection, as is widely believed, between musical and mathematical ability:

...Dr. Levitin argued that this could not be true, based on his study of people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that leaves people with low intelligence. Their peak mental capacities are typically those of young child, with no ability to calculate quantities. Dr. Levitin once asked a woman with Williams to hold up her hand for five seconds; she left it in the air for a minute and a half. "No concept of time at all," he said, "and definitely no math."

Yet people with Williams possess unusually high levels of musical ability. One Williams boy Dr. Levitin met was so poorly coordinated he could not open the case to his clarinet. But once he was holding the instrument, his coordination problems vanished, and he could play fluidly. Music cannot be indispensably correlated with math, Dr. Levitin noted, if Williams people can play music. He is now working on a study that compares autistics -- some of whom have excellent mathematical ability, but little musical ability -- to people with Williams; in the long run, he said, he thinks it could help shed light on why autistic brains develop so differently.

Wouldn't that be incredible--if studying the way music works in the brain could lead to an understanding of autism, and, maybe, ultimately some practical treatments for helping people with locked-down minds to be able to interact with the world? (I have a friend who is a music teacher, who has taught kids with autism and other developmental disabilities. She sometimes reads this blog, so maybe she can give us the benefit of her experience about autistic kids and their level of musical ability.) It's amazing the things we can learn about the brain because someone takes a different approach to the examination. Here we have an example of a man whose initial love of music, performing and then producing it, led him eventually to the study of how the brain functions in the minds of autistic children. A punk band to a laboratory is not the standard route of scientific discovery, but it's one that makes sense in this case, because the musician involved let his questions about music go deeper than, "Wait--what key is this in?" It makes me wonder what kinds of things all of us could accomplish if we followed our talents and curiosities beyond their normal bounds. I know so many musicians; I feel like giving them all scientific assignments just to see what they would come up with. Of course, I know artists too, and teachers, and nurses, and accountants... What undiscovered secrets are just waiting to be found and explored because someone else decides they want to try to understand something more, like why a person can "name that tune" in just one note?

Hat tip: Sioux Lady