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Sting on The Musical Brain
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The Musical Brain

(US DVD: 4 Sep 2012)

PBS’s The Musical Brain sets out to discover the different ways in which music affects the brain and vice versa. It’s certainly a link that has already proven to exist, but this documentary is most interested in how music affects the brain of a musician. The main test case for the project is Sting, but other, less famous musicians are also studied. In addition, artists as varied as Wyclef Jean, Michael Bublé, and Feist are featured and interviewed.


The documentary focuses mainly on the work of neurologist, Dr. Daniel Levitan. A former musician, Dr. Levitan’s interest in how music affects the brain has led him to study how music is processed by a “master musician”, both during active listening and composing. His research intrigued Sting enough for him to agree to be a test case for Dr. Levitan’s study.


Dr. Levitan, along with other doctors featured in the documentary such as Dr. Petr Janata and Dr. Charles Limb, make clear that not everyone responds to the same music in the same way.  However, people do show a more intense brain connection to music that is familiar and comfortable. In studies with elderly patients it was even found that musical memory was often unchanged in those affected by Alzheimer’s disease. One Alzheimer’s patient was able to point out a wrong note in a song, but was unable to remember her husband’s visit from the previous day. This link between memory and music is integral to understanding the musical brain.


While it’s easier to connect with music that we already know, it’s obviously not the only way that the brain is engaged by music. The deliberate study and practice of music can at times be initially rejected by the brain, but over time that same music can become as stimulating to the brain as those already familiar.  To take things further, by playing an instrument, the brain engages with music in a much more involved way, even going so far as to be linked to intelligence, possibly increasing an IQ score by up to seven points.


Dr. Levitan’s study on Sting went beyond scanning his brain as he listened to music. He asked that Sting compose a melody during his brain scan to see the differences in the way the brain reads listening and creating. He found that there was a noticeable link between the right and left sides of the brain; that they were communicating with each other, rather than isolated in a single task, when composing. 


Similar to Dr. Levitan’s work, Dr. Limb, also an accomplished musician, was interested in how the brain reacts to improvisation. He had a jazz musician improvise on a small keyboard during a scan and found that the part of the brain that deals with self-censoring was less dominant than it normally would be, and that more areas of the brain were stimulated than is typical.


The documentary asserts many of the ideas that have been around for awhile already, such as that listening to music while in the womb stimulates the fetus and in turn, the infant is able to recognize music played pre-birth. The emotional connection to music is also stressed in analyzing why we respond to certain genres of music over others, oftentimes the reasons lie in memory and the brain’s link to our younger years. 


The Musical Brain is also interested in the ways in which music inspires movement and how the brain connects the two. In studying the amount of movement that music produces in the average listener, doctors have found a link to the pleasure center of the brain.  As music, movement, and emotion influence one another, the brain releases dopamine and causes happiness in the listener. 


The documentary also does a nice job of humanizing the topic in interviewing Wyclef Jean, Feist, and Michael Bublé. While Sting’s interest is often intellectual, these other musicians use their own personal experiences with music and how they’ve been affected or seen its effects on others, to illustrate how connected we are to music. They are also a nice counterpoint to the more scientific talking heads that are predominantly featured in this program.


The Musical Brain touches upon varied aspects of how music is understood by the brain, from movement to memory to emotion; thus, the documentary casts a wide net. Unfortunately, as compelling a subject as it is, the hour-long production feels like a very basic introduction to the concept of the link between music and the brain. It would do better to have either focused on one or two subjects, or if it were longer, allowing more time to offer further detail. The connection between the brain and music is a fascinating subject and this documentary only begins to scratch the surface.


The DVD release contains no bonus material.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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