Music on the mind, and inside it

ROB FORTUNATOYo-Yo Ma appears in “The Music Instinct.’’ ROB FORTUNATOYo-Yo Ma appears in “The Music Instinct.’’ (Rob Fortunato)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 24, 2009
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Our children won’t believe it when we tell them that we lived through those benighted years before the arrival of functional MRI scans, when conductors just gave downbeats, and rock stars just crooned. These days, both do so with their brain activity closely monitored. Babies have been wired up, stories of musical “brainworms’’ have made the bestseller list, Yo-Yo Ma has performed with videos taken from brain scans. In short, research in the neuroscience of music is booming and it seems to be everywhere.

Much of it is fascinating, actually, but for the lay music fan it can also be hard to keep tabs on, and to remember why exactly it matters. Here to help is “The Music Instinct: Science and Song,’’ a documentary airing tonight on WGBH. It offers both a clear overview of the latest research and an enjoyable survey of some of the age-old questions related to how and, more profoundly, why we are such a musically-inclined species. (Spoiler alert: We, um, still don’t know.)

Director Elena Mannes has chosen a swath of the subject far too wide to allow for a straightforward narrative, so this two-hour documentary is more like a meandering improvisation on a theme, taking you from the human genome to the music of the cosmos, from contemporary research labs to an archeological site in Germany where a bone flute dating 35,000 years has been discovered.

We watch as Cameroonian tribesmen who have never before been exposed to Western music try to identify that music as happy, sad, or frightening (they in fact hear it as most Westerners do). We watch as a recovering stroke patient undergoes music therapy and poignantly relearns the ability to speak. We even witness the surreal lengths to which one pregnant woman would go in the name of science, as she apparently agreed to the insertion of a microphone in utero allowing us to hear how music might sound to her fetus. Not so differently, it turns out.

Bobby McFerrin and the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin are the affable cohosts of this guided tour. There are some contrived moments, like the stilted conceit of the academic experts gathered in a dark conference room debating the field as if they just turned up for a Monday morning department meeting. But for the most part the show covers a lot of scientific ground in both serious and accessible ways. Many segments circle vaguely around the big question of why the musical impulse is so ancient and widespread. Plenty of evolutionary theories are aired, and Steven Pinker is one of the few skeptics here, voicing doubts about whether in fact there is any deeper evolutionary basis for our musicality.

The British songwriter Jarvis Cocker comically wonders whether he has any brains left after years in the music industry, and then proceeds to sing from inside an MRI machine. There is also a classical who’s who, with cameos from Ma and Evelyn Glennie. Daniel Barenboim provides his signature blend of insight and pomposity. And violinist-composer Daniel Bernard Roumain offers some funky fiddle riffs and also an offhanded comment, reminding us that it is actually during the silence right after a musical phrase that you often comprehend what was just said. How unscientific. How true.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

THE MUSIC INSTINCT: Science and Song On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: tonight, 9-11

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