Two brains on music: Bobby McFerrin visits Levitin lab

Bobby McFerrin and Prof. Daniel Levitin share a laugh as the vocalist samples an experiment at the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise. / Photo: Owen Egan
Bobby McFerrin and Prof. Daniel Levitin share a laugh as the vocalist samples an experiment at the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Chris Chipello

When PBS produced the award-winning documentary “The Music Instinct,” based on Prof. Daniel Levitin’s best-selling book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” vocalist Bobby McFerrin served as a co-host.

McFerrin, along with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other renowned performers, helped demonstrate how the basic elements of music — pitch, tempo, rhythm and melody — create specific reactions in our brains.

So while McFerrin was in Montreal last week to perform at the Jazz Festival, it was only natural that he drop by McGill’s Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise to visit with Prof. Levitin and get a first-hand look at the array of experiments that go on there.

“Scientifically looking at the things I do is new to me,” McFerrin said.

He proved to be a keen observer, as Levitin ran him through a sampling of experiments designed to tease out answers to questions about how music interacts with the human mind.

At one point, for example, Levitin had McFerrin don a set of high-end headphones and listen to an excerpt from a Barbra Streisand recording in two different formats – one in CD quality , another in an ultra-high quality format sometimes used in audiophile recordings. McFerrin would try to determine which was which, a bit like a wine expert undertaking a blind taste test.

McFerrin listened carefully, then quickly decided that the first version had “a little bit more air in it.” The second “still had a nice quality to it, but it just sounded a little like the sheen had been taken off of it.”

Levitin then played two more versions of the same Streisand snippet. This time, McFerrin said he “didn’t really detect much difference.”

McFerrin had nailed both tests.

“We’ve tested a whole bunch of people, including Grammy award-winning sound producers, and they can’t tell the difference,” said Levitin, who is a former record producer as well as a James McGill Professor of Psychology. “But you’re hearing the differences, which actually upsets me,” he added wryly, drawing a big laugh from McFerrin. “Because it makes my life more complicated now. If nobody could tell the difference, that’s a tidy research story. If one person can tell the difference, maybe there’s a second, so I’ve got to find that second person…”

The issue is of keen interest to the Grammy Foundation, which is funding the study. Along with the Library of Congress, the Foundation is vitally involved in preserving old recordings by creating a permanent digital archive. Because higher resolution requires much more storage space, it’s more costly – so there’s an economic incentive to use the minimum resolution needed to keep the recordings sounding their best.

The Levitin Lab, tucked away in the sprawling Stewart Biology Building, studies the science of musical sound, using a broad spectrum of approaches. These include the use of functional neuroimaging, studies of specific populations with neurogenetic impairments, and traditional behavioral psychology experiments.

McFerrin got a feel for the range of methods when he tried out an experiment designed by visiting pain researcher Dr. Laura Mitchell from Scotland. He was asked to plunge his hand into ice water and leave it there as long as he could, while a piece of gentle music played. He withdrew his hand after 6.72 seconds. “Goodness gracious, that’s cold water.” After he recovered, the exercise was repeated with his other hand – to the tune of a suspenseful, but familiar, piece of music. This time he managed to keep his hand in the water for 12.72 seconds – almost twice as long.

How to explain that outcome, McFerrin wondered? “The familiarity may be comforting,” Levitin observed. “Even though the music is scary, the comforting quality of it could cause a release of dopamine or other chemicals that soothe you.”