Musicians wait onstage as the sound tech adjusts the cables around them. He signals “OK” and runs back through the seats of the empty auditorium to the mixing board. The musicians all dressed in black, instruments in hand, prepare to play. Four sharp whacks from the drummer’s sticks and music fills the space. Horns, keyboards, electric guitar, bass, and harmonica back singers as they belt out the upbeat earworm Drive It Like You Stole It. They sound great and make it look pretty effortless too, which is why it’s hard to believe these “rock stars” are also scientists, marketers, IT specialists, lawyers, you name it, who make up the Promega employee band, Lead Generation. (Thank marketing for the name.)
“Lead Generation is just one of the many opportunities at Promega that make it truly unique,” says Kris Zimmerman, a research scientist who sings and plays trumpet with the band. “Any kind of expression of creativity can help you to have different perspectives and be a better problem solver. Fostering an environment where collaboration and creativity are rewarded really helps to create a sense of belonging, and creates a vibe of excitement that you don’t find just anywhere. Plus how cool is it to tell people that you play in a band? At work?”
When my son was about 2 years old, he commented that the jingles “Twinkle twinkle little star” and “alphabet song” had the same musical notation. While I do not think I am tone deaf and I do appreciate music, I had not made the connection in all these years. Music appreciation is perhaps one of the most subjective and controversial topics. For some people, appreciating music involves understanding the technical nuances and critically evaluating artist’s mastery over the art, and for some of us, it is about simply enjoying the patterns and rhythms. While one might claim that they enjoy all kinds of music, for most of us, only certain kinds of music elicit a deeper appreciation, emotive experience and pleasure. Our music preferences are molded by exposure, cultural diversities and to some extent, mood. Music is extremely varied, and listing the kinds of music could fill pages. Arguing one kind of music is better than other is as like saying one color is better than the other.
Back in June of 2010, my colleague and fellow blogger, Isobel, wrote a post on “Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo, YouTube and Scientific Discovery.” It featured a popular YouTube video of Snowball the sulfur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) dancing to the Backstreet Boys. Besides being adorable, and the kind of video you can’t watch without getting a big dumb grin on your face, it was notable because Snowball was ably exhibiting a behavior previously thought unique to humans: the ability to keep, and move in time with, a musical beat.
Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus is a great discussion from World Science Fair 2009. Have you ever been driving along listening to the radio and suddenly a song plays and transports you to a different time or place? Have you ever wondered at the way music stirs your memories and emotion? Or have you ever stopped to think about how music, in its admittedly different forms, has been an integral part human of culture for as far back as we can study? Does music speak a particular primordial language that we all understand?
In this presentation Bobby McFerrin and three neuroscientists discuss the way the brain gets involved in music–the listening, physicality, participation and emotion. Essentially, music is a “whole nervous system activity”, involving many parts of the central nervous system that function nearly simultaneously. At one point in the talk pitch, tambre and rhythm defined and demonstrated. The researchers point out that certain intervals in music such as the minor third are prevalent in speech associated with negative emotions, but that no positive emotions are associated universally with a particular pitch.
But for fun today, get your whole brain involved and join Bobby McFerrin in this demonstration of the universality of the pentatonic scale.
You know those things you occasionally come across that look kind of cool and you think might be good for a minute or two of diversion? You know how it’s all fine and dandy until you somehow get sucked in and, before you know it, half the day is gone? Yeah. Meet Seaquence.
Seaquence is an online web app created by Ryan Alexander, Gabriel Dunne, and Daniel Massey, with support from Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. It is described as “an experiment in musical composition,” where “adopting a biological metaphor, you can create and combine musical lifeforms resulting in an organic, dynamic composition.” It’s basically an online petri dish where you add little squiggly creatures that make music. You control what combination of sounds each creature makes by adding antennae or changing the wiggle pattern of their bodies. When you’re done, you have a little virtual ambient orchestra; an ecosystem of minuscule musicians that you have guided, shaped and molded to your exact specifications. Oh, the power! Muaaa-haa-haa! Continue reading “How a Musical Petri Dish Could Waste Your Whole Morning”
A Review Of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music
Physicist Emerson Pugh once quipped, “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t” . In his book This Is Your Brain On Music neuroscientist Daniel Levitin notes how the number of ways that brain neurons can connect is so vast that we will never fully comprehend all the thought processes that we are capable of.
In recent years, mapping techniques have revealed a lot about the functional regions of the brain. Wernicke’s area is responsible for language processing, the motor cortex for physical movement and frontal lobes for generating personalities. Both encephalography and MRI have given us key spatial-temporal data about brain function in these regions. But we also find that activities such as listening to music contravene such a simplistic compartmentalization.
In fact the perception of pitch, tempo, the emotions invoked by a piece of music and the lyrics of a song all use different parts of the brain albeit simultaneously. Levitin repeatedly emphasizes the multi-faceted aspects of the music ‘experience’ noting how a, “precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake” leads to our appreciation of music. The brain is thus a massively parallel device, capable of carrying out several different tasks at once.
Grad school is no walk in the park. Whether the topic is English or Astrophysics, most grad students would agree that the journey to the coveted PhD can simply be described as “hard”- academically, financially, mentally. It is very important to have an outlet for the associated stress such as a hobby or exercise. My outlet was music. Music is very important in my life. It is so important that most people close to me have their own soundtrack that plays in my head when I think of them. Needless to say, music played a big part in saving my sanity during my 7.5 years in grad school. As time went on, there were several songs that marked important milestones and emotions I experienced along the way. When I defended my thesis, I decided to leave the department with a musical story of how I made it through. I created a compilation CD of all these songs to share with the department and any other struggling grad students I encountered. The CD has a custom label featuring the structure of the protein I studied, cardiac troponin C.
Many people in the United States of America will be celebrating the country’s Independence Day by gathering with family, grilling and consuming food, and watching a Chinese invention explode overhead in many shapes and colors. I am partial to the ones my family calls boomers consisting of a small circular white flash of light and an explosion of sound that vibrates my chest.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) predicts that 32.8 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home over the July 4th weekend; 84% of those will travel by auto. Continue reading “Don’t Forget the Music”
It would seem that most of us can recall at least one instance when we stumbled over a long-lost treasure. The occasional trip to the attic or a weekend search through our own backyards bring back bountiful memories as we sift through great grandma’s keepsake or a secret heir-loom that we had long given up for lost. Often times we are painfully unaware of the value of the memento we hold in our hands.
Years ago I remember reading how one lady picked up a discarded cello that was destined for the trash heap. Not knowing that this particular instrument was one of only sixty that had been hand-crafted by the great instrument maker Antonio Stradivari in 1684, plans were made to carve it into a hinge-bearing CD holder (1). Fortunately for all concerned this story had a happy ending. In fact, the lady’s plans were narrowly averted as she read about the disappearance of the 3.5 million dollar masterpiece (2). Continue reading “Would You Like Mushrooms With That Violin?”