How Science Is Exploring the Art of Music

Music has moved my soul from the beginning, but why do we sing, hum, warble and pluck? Connie Edwards

Ever since I was young I have always believed that music was an inherent part of being human. As a girl singer I saw and felt the effect that music had on people but I could never quantify it. This journey of scientific discovery about how music affects humans and how science is using music to discover more about humans is featured in I Got Rhythm: The Science of  Song

Music has moved my soul from the beginning, but it has only been in the last 15 years or so that science appears to have taken a serious interest in why we sing, hum, warble, pluck or blow into instruments. Our team literally travelled around the world to meet with some incredible scientists and researchers who are doing ground breaking scientific work using music. What was fascinating was how many of the scientists/researchers were also accomplished musicians.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Humans Have Been Making Music For 40,000 Years

One of our favourite places was deep inside a cave in the Swabian Alps of Germany where flutes dating back 40,000 years were found. We recorded a music historian playing replica flutes inside this enormous, dark cavern where early Homo sapiens lived. Sitting in almost complete darkness was an ethereal experience where the notes seemed to hang and float in mid air. It allowed us to imagine hearing them as those early humans had heard them. It was also amazing to learn how complex and precise these ancient instruments were. I am hoping that scientists will soon find even older instruments, as the ones we saw were already so sophisticated. When did humans begin making music?

Our most surprising story was the heavy metal study out of Australia. I thought that heavy metal music could give rise to aggressive behaviour. What a surprise to meet Stoyan Stoyanov, a gentle, talented musician/researcher. He told his associates that he would go to sleep listening to heavy metal music. They found that counterintuitive, so launched a study to see if heavy metal music made you more aggressive or if it calmed you down. While it was a small study, the results were surprising. By the time we finished filming the heavy metal mini-concert I was drained and understood the release of energy and the results that the study had found.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Does heavy metal music provoke aggression?

The most amazing and inspiring person we interviewed was Sean Forbes, a 95 per cent deaf hip hop artist from Detroit. From my musical experiences I knew that hearing impaired people could feel the low vibrations of music played through large speakers. I had no idea however that music could be felt so keenly by someone who couldn’t actually “hear” music and that they could write and perform music in the way that Sean does. Sean loves and is moved by music as much as I am.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Meet Sean Forbes

I feel there is still so much untapped in our exploration of music as it relates to science. Music and musical tones are being used in healing, space and in animal research. There are whole new frontiers of exploration. I, for one, am definitely going along for this musical ride.

Available on CBC Gem

I Got Rhythm: The Science of Song

Nature of Things