DVD Review - The Music Instinct: Science & Song

"One of the last frontiers is the human brain," said Robert J. Zatorre, neuroscientist at McGill University. "Music serves as a gateway to understanding human cognition." Zatorre and Daniel Levitin teamed up with colleagues from around the world to unravel the secrets of the brain in The Music Instinct: Science & Song.

Also featured in this PBS Network DVD documentary are physicist Brian Greene, neuroscientists Lawrence Parsons and Jamshed Bharucha, archeologists Steven Mithen and Nicholas Conard, ethnomusicologist Kay K. Shelemay, researchers Sheila C. Woodward, Kathleen Wermke and Tom Fritz, psychologist John Sloboda, neurologists Gottfried Schlaug, Oliver Sacks and Tom Cicoria, neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel and author Steven Pinker.

Musicians interviewed include singer Bobby McFerrin, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim, British rockers Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, blind pianist Hwaen Ch'uqi and Lebanese singer Christiane Karam.

Cutting Edge Technology Reveals How Music Affects the Brain

With Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and PET technology, scientists can track blood flow and brain activity when subjects are listening to music, improvising, composing and collaborating. This helps them map various areas of the brain that are used.

In The Music Instinct, scientists discovered that the body is a barometer of our musical response to music. When listening to frightening music, our body responds by exhibiting the "flight or fight" response. When we listen to music we like, dopamine, the neurotransmitter for pleasure, is released. A recent discovery is that multiple areas of the brain are involved in processing music.

Music Teaches Us about the Brain, the Brain Teaches Us Music

"If you look at music performance, there's no activity that we do that allows the brain to do so many things at once, with such a complicated coordination and at such depth," said Parsons. His team discovered brain activity is higher when performing in collaboration versus performing solo. Playing an instrument engages the brain more than just listening to music.

"Music - probably one of the most distinctive characteristics of humans," said Mithen, who set out to discover how this compulsion for musicality evolved. He traveled to Germany, where Conard showed him an ivory flute from the Ice Age. The ancient artifacts found seem to indicate that music was as much a part of their life as it is now and that they used a similar scale in their music.

Woodward and Wermke found that babies can hear sound within their mother's womb and that they prefer consonance. Wermke learned that babies cry using melodic intervals, commonly using a perfect fifth, major and minor third and perfect fourth.

Both found that children of deaf parents performed similarly. This is significant as children of deaf parents were subject to less sound stimulation in the womb.

Is Music Universal?

Researchers learned that there are three intervals that are most common worldwide: the perfect fifth, perfect fourth and the perfect octave (the third is next). Ethnomusicologists also found that art music and lullabies from around the world possess common traits.

One interesting study showed the Mafa tribe in Africa. This civilization is far removed from modern technology and Western music. Researchers asked the Mafa to listen to musical excerpts from around the world and identify each as being "happy", "sad" or "scary". Their response was identical to people from Western cultures.

However, Shelemay warns viewers against claims of anything being "universal" in music. "Conceptions vary," she said.

Neurologists and other scientists found that playing music with a strong pulse helps patients with Parkinson's Disease learn to walk again. They also discovered that music helps stroke patients improve their speech and motor skills. Music that mimics the sound of a mother's heartbeat soothes premature babies, while it helps slow down the progress of dementia.

A Well Done Piece that Leaves Viewers with More Questions

Will this take away the mystery of music for you or whet your appetite for more information? Watch it and decide for yourself.

This PBS documentary features an impressive team of scientists and musicians. However, as the team admits, they face challenges and controversies moving forward. Are music and language two sides of the same coin or can they be separated? How much of what we know is learned and how much is "music instinct"? Does music move us or do the memories we attach to a song move us?

To find out more about Daniel Levitin's studies on science and music, visit Why Music Moves Us, Why Do People Sing?, DanielLevitin's website and The Music Instinct on PBS.

If you haven't figured it out yet: goose bumps come from the brain.

Release Date: 2009

Running Time: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Elena Mannes

Executive Producers: Elena Mannes & Margaret Smilow

Special Features: 12 additional interviews and performances

Where to buy The Music Instinct: Amazon.ca, Amazon.com and Alibris: Books, Music, & Movies, as well as your local DVD retailers.

Originally published on Suite101.com on December 19, 2009. Updated April 2, 2013. All rights reserved by Rhona-Mae Arca.