Sunday, July 26, 2009

In review--A Tuneful Mind

The Music Instinct
Science and Song DVD
Public Broadcast Station

Many years ago I discovered the healing power of music. I was attending WOMAD USA and felt myself merge with everything around me when I listened to music played by world musicians. That epiphany led me on a journey that has only been validated by a small group of people, thus far.

PBS just released a DVD and broadcast of The Music Instinct: Science & Song, directed by Elena Mannes and hosted by Bobby McFerrin and Neurologist Daniel Levitin. A bridge is built between science and the arts, music in particular and a lot of questions are probed, but some not answered to their full extent. On one hand, the director and her crew seem to have crunched too much information into the 120 minute film, but on the other hand, some of this information seems repetitive such as the presentation of brain scans activated by music listened to or performed.

Neurologist and music lover Oliver Sacks who appears in the documentary has already covered a lot of ground about the brain and music in his book Musicophilia (reviewed on this blog), and David Rothenberg (philosopher/musician/professor/author), covered the connection between music and other species in his books Thousand Mile Song and Why Birds Sing (also reviewed on this blog).

Although some key studies and people such as psycho-acoustics expert Joshua Leeds and musician healer Marjorie de Muynck, percussionist Will Clipman and Ugandan musician-humanitarian Samite are missing from this PBS documentary, it still validates the work of music researchers, musicians, music therapists and other folks involved with the healing powers of music, even if the film does not explore spiritual or metaphysical territory.

Deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie comes close to mentioning chakras, but instead focuses how a bass drum resonate in the lower body and higher sounding instruments resonate in the upper body. This film focuses on scientific studies, but the music performed throughout the film belies the scientific-logical part of the brain and speaks for itself. No one discusses rhythmic entrainment or resonance, and some of the music that appeared in the film felt downright unhealthy to my nervous system. Again there is that assumption that all types of music are good for us. I don't agree.

Music's connection to culture is discussed along with which parts of the brain are activated by music. British rock musicians (not the most tuneful), are shown performing during a brain scan. But what would have happened if Bobby McFerrin or someone like Taj Mahal's brains were scanned since these musicians are well-versed in different styles and traditions of music. I would have liked to have seen brain scans of musicians that work with multiple voice harmonies such as the Wailin' Jennys or Corsican polyphononic choirs for instance.

I imagine the results would be more remarkable than musicians who only play rock music with a 4/4 beat and the western octave scale. Speaking of octaves, one of the researchers in the film said that all musicians from the world play an octave scale. This is not true--many cultures play and compose music in a pentatonic scale (5-notes). A musical expert should know this information.

The film does not really offer anything new, but puts the information the researchers gathered into a film that can easily be digested by the public television-viewing public. A lot of viewers of the DVD will remark that it is fascinating and will actually learn about the power of music for the first time. This though is wonderful news to those of us who have been on the healing music train for a long time. And you do not need to be an academic to grasp that yes, music hails from prehistory, has been used for various rituals and healing practices, as well as, entertainment. And when performed by an aware musician in the right venue has the power to heal and take us all to a place of oneness.