World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

At the World Science Festival in June here in New York, specialists – including musical specialist Bobby McFerrin – gathered to ask what in music we humans hear universally, versus what is culturally specific.

Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment? Join host John Schaefer, Jamshed Barucha, scientist Daniel Levitin, Professor Lawrence Parsons and musical artist Bobby McFerrin for live performances and cross cultural demonstrations to illustrate music’s note-worthy interaction with the brain and our emotions.

You can watch a series of five video highlights, but the one above is perhaps the most striking. (I believe it’s already more than made the rounds around the Interwebs, but, well, we can say we were all busy creating digital music.)

Notes and Neurons videos

It’s funny just how low the average person’s opinion of their musical ability can be. Ask an average “non-musician,” and they’ll often claim to be deaf to rhythm and pitch. Push the issue, though, and typically you’ll discover quite the opposite. Listen as the crowd laughs at discovering they all share some basic intuition about how pitch works. These are, after all, science and neurology types, not musicians.

Ah, you say, but this is just a crowd in New York. And most of us interact only with people in our own cultural circles. For me, that means people surrounded by pop music, Western harmony and counterpoint, chord changes derived from Protestant hymns — the lot.

What’s wonderful is that certain basic rhythmic and pitch elements – belying rich complexities of psychoacoustic phenomena underneath – do indeed seem to be universal. To me, that profound universality says something about what we share as human beings. At the same time, it makes me even more interested in all of the local details. When playing Balinese gamelan, some Western-trained musicians literally turned up their noses because they said the results sounded “out of tune.” Like a pungent flavoring in a foreign food, they discovered something unfamiliar. (I wonder if they would have the same reaction to sambal.) Of course, the underlying pitch systems are related to pentatonic (and heptatonic) pitch collections. And the same thing that disturbed one person has excited other musicians – not simply because it’s exotic, but because it can speak to something deeper in our hearing that we don’t get from other music.

Anyway, thanks to (noou) for this story, via IRCAM’s Eric Boyer; it really made my day. And it should certainly spark (ahem) some interest in neurology and the brain. Or, as I’m going to start saying whenever coming across something like this,

“Larry, what the hell just happened here?”

  • rhowaldt

    fantastic. made me smile ear to ear. thanks for sharing.

  • I had already watched.. it's true, the ancient greeks had already stated that there is an ethos behind all the musical systems.. and it's what bob mcferry says, and it's what the psycho-acoustic studiers say.. so, with new statments over the generations, ouver the many civilizations, we have here some sort of musical dogmatic true

  • Joe

    Very interesting video, thanks for sharing! As for the doctrine of Ethos, as stated by the Greeks… I'm sorry, but I think it's been very clearly demostrated over the centuries that it is BS.

  • Agreed. The Greeks may have been wrong about the *how*, but I don't know that they were on entirely the wrong track. It's tough to look at tuning ratios and figure out how it is that people have a natural ability to process, say, a pentatonic scale. But, on the other hand, I think we have a lot more work to do in terms of figuring out how we hear those relationships – frequency ratios aren't really enough. And the beauty of observational science is that, as Bobby does, you can go out and see how people respond. Something is definitely happening.

  • see, this is the kid of stuff we need more of, what with the global recession, war and our spend-more-for-more culture. we have done these kinds of excercises at my school aswell and the result is always the same.

    sometimes the human kind is nothing short of fantastic. sometimes human kind makes me want to put a hole through my head though. this indeed made me smile aswell as i have too been sitting in the audience when this phenomenon occurs. people are well suprised about their knowledge of pitch, despite swearing by beeing completely tonedeaf.

  • Hey Peter, glad you enjoyed the video! It really made me smile in a special way: feeling the magic yet the simplicity of us human beings and of music.

    I have to thank my friend Tommaso Bianco who's a PhD student at IRCAM and first sent me the link (I don't know Eric Boyer personally).

  • Here's how I think of it:

    The pentatonic scale is the consonant and "grounding" skeleton of the western major and minor scales. The two remaining notes (4 and 7 in major, or 2 and 6 in minor), as a result, need to be used in a purposeful and almost reverent way, because those are the notes that signal that something important is happening.

    I know this post is more about science, culture, and humanity than theory, but I'd love to see other takes on that… not so much what you were taught in a class, but what your own perception is.

  • Damon

    Pentatonic can also be purchased at your local drug store. Known to cure baldness, colds, fevers, scabies, itches, warts, is delicious in milk, and is in fact the secret to motionless exorcize.

  • Charles

    Thanks, this made me smile.

  • Terrible

    this certainly brings a smile.

    however when you write: "Listen as the crowd laughs at discovering they all share some basic intuition about how pitch works." … i can't help but question your interpretation.

    … could this not be a crowd discovering they all share the same melodic education. i see no reason to characterize this as "intuition" rather than training. its certainly genuine, spontaneous behaviour, but i think they are intuiting what is expected of them from a conductor.

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  • @Terrible: I'm pretty sure (give also what Bobby says) that the musical education doesn't affect the result: the pentatonic scale is a musical structure which is in our DNA. Blues music comes from there, and more generally the pentatonic is very African and, being there humankind's roots, very much shared.

    I'm usually quite a positivist, but think what happens in nature: young animals start eating, swimming, walking, etc. without any education. They just know it, it's their nature. It seems kind of magic, but actually it's the very concrete power of Nature.

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  • pierlu

    McFerrin is a wonderful performer and the video is awesome…


    what people really sings is the MAJOR scale. The only note they sing by themselves is an F, after McFerrin has set the two basic notes Db and Eb… and F is the major third of Db.

    Then McFerrin sings a fourth note, which is a lower Bb… so it's HIM who sets the scale as a pentatonic, not the audience. Then it starts to improvise on a pentatonic scale… so the audience go with him cos of training not because "the pentatonic is fundamental".

    The audience have been tricked into singing a pentatonic. They would have sung a major scale if left by themselves.

  • theau

    "The audience have been tricked into singing a pentatonic. They would have sung a major scale if left by themselves."

    Very interesting !

  • Björn

    pierlu: That's exactly what I've been thinking since I saw this video two months ago.

  • Well, of course, this depends on just how much you believe Bobby when he says "…and this is what happens all over the world."

    When we say "Western," we're really saying Western Classical, because even most traditional Western music doesn't assign harmonic values to the degrees of the major scale. In fact, a lot of folk music is also pentatonic. Case in point: hum "Amazing Grace." Or for that matter, hum "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," with nearly the same melody. Other melodies we take for granted sound like a major scale, but are more modal than they are harmonic. Take "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" aka the the ABC's — which, speaking of musical education, you probably learned first. It's not pentatonic – it's really sextatonic. Now, you could argue that because it's descending to tone 1, it's somehow a tonic-dominant melody, but… all of that is contained in the modal movement, and kids learn it as a monophonic line.

    And that's the musical education in one of the world capitals of supposed Western harmonies.

    @Keith: I agree, to the extent that this is true in Western classical music. But other cultures have heptatonic and octatonic modes that don't assign any harmonic importance to the extra notes. In fact, that's how Debussy uses octatonic modes in his solo piano writing – precisely because there isn't clear harmonic motion.

    Anyway, given that – given the major scale with harmonic associations attached isn't always the most important scale even in our own music – what's interesting isn't that the audience found the major scale degree. It's that they found the *note*. It's possible the reason the reason it's easy for people in our culture to learn the major scale in the first place is that, on some cognitive / psychoacoustic level, our brain is able to process the pitches.

    Also, you're focusing on the point at which the audience finds "3" in 1 – 2 – 3. What's really extraordinary to me is actually when they transpose – collectively – the entire pentatonic mode to the lower octave. That demonstrates they've picked up on the pentatonic mode (which, assuming this is a cultural thing, means at the very least they've absorbed it, too), *and* they've figured out – intuitively – octave equivalence. (Okay, sure, it's soft, but – the audience doesn't have the vocal range of Bobby McFerrin.

    This one video doesn't necessarily prove anything, to be sure – but already some interesting things are happening, and it taises some interesting questions.

  • wi_ngo

    @Peter – it's interesting that you bring up the notion of "octave equivalence". I was told once in a theory class that the one and only harmonic notion that is consistent through ALL cultures, regardless of what modes or 'microtonal' structures a traditional music may be based upon, is the concept of octave. Although some cultures conceptualize it differently (e.g. apparently the traditional Japanese approach views notes of different octaves as the 'same' note, but with different 'color' or something – which is not that different than western classical, but I believe they don't approach it as 'higher' or 'lower' in the same way, necessarily).

    I have no idea if this is actually true – the prof could have been over-simplifying or being hyperbolic. But it does make sense that no matter how you define a scale in a culture, even if equal-tempered 12-tone scales or, say perfect fifths sound 'wrong' to your ears, you would have to agree on the existence of an octave – tones multiplied or divided by factors of 2, frequency-wise.

    Anyway, this video is awesome. Bobby is a consummate genius when it comes to live, improvised performance and audience participation.

  • Well, I'd tend to agree – I think it's fair to say there's some sort of universal octave equivalence. Current thinking is that this has to be a property of our hearing. Thinking about it logically, I would imagine it's connected to our ability to separate strong fundamental frequencies in the cochlea. Of course, you still hear high or low.

    I'm not sure octave equivalence is the only cultural constant, though; that's of course what the series depicted in the video was discussing. Just because two cultures don't tune the same way doesn't mean there isn't some shared understanding of pitch – the fifth ought to be an easy one to spot, for instance. A single "Western" musician may tune differently in different circumstances, but that doesn't mean there isn't some underlying principle that impacts both.

    I watched the video again. It's clear to me people aren't just singing a major scale. It's possible that if he kept going to the right – 1 2 3 (4), people would continue to the less-intuitive half-step, of course that's ingrained in Western culture. But that doesn't mean the pentatonic isn't *also* ingrained. Watch how quickly everyone picks up on degree 6 below 1, and how easily they move in the mode once they're aware that's the mode he's using. If they were still thinking in major harmonic motion, they'd be inclined to go to the leading tone (7-1), not the modal (6-1). No dissonant tension, no leading tone, no dominant-tonic harmonic motion. Case closed.

  • pierlu

    I want not to go into endless debate, cause everyone has his own peculiar point of view on the subject. but i state again, that him who sings the lower note, which incidentally is the note from which the relative minor scale begins. and i guess that everyone is apt to sing the starting note of a minor scale if the relative three notes of the major scale are already set up.

    But it's of no importance since the video is fun to watch and i guess that McFerrin and the audience too had a great time.

    cheers. p.

  • Moxie

    This is where one should shout "Helmholtz" and wave a copy of "On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music" around. Or has he been superceded yet?

  • Glad to see McFerrin showing the people that they have the music inside them too. I think the way our culture has made the arts the exclusive realm of "professionals" demeans music as something commercial, not something human, and it also causes people who can never become professionals to think they should repress their inner music, rather than allow themselves to participate in life fully. These crowds clearly show, that music is something inside all of us.

  • Sean

    It's amazing how music actually "works". It's more than magical.

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  • wuruwuru

    It is a common assertion that octave equivalence is universal. While this seems to be largely true, there are significant exceptions that make this questionable.

    Balinese music is an interesting counter example as almost all tuning systems in Bali (there are many) feature a degree of octave non-equivalence. Check out Michael Tenzer's 'Gamelan Gong Kebyar' pages 30-33 on Google Books if you want more information about Kebyar in particular.

    Gamelan Gambuh (a medieval style) perhaps demonstrates this even more strongly than Keybar. Gambuh's three octave range features at least seven notes per octave with no pitches being equivalent in any other octave (each octave has a distinct and separate set of pitches). In spite of these differences, musicians sing the same solfege name for notes that are in the same scale position in each octave despite significant deviations in pitch. Pitch sets that span approximately a fourth in the lowest register are compressed into approximately a tone in the highest register. There also seems to be similar octave non-equivalence in some flute styles of West Sumatra.

    A little bit closer to home but to a more subtle degree, the piano is not tuned with equivalent octaves but has its octaves stretched due to inharmonicity of the harmonic series in stretched strings. Use the Railsback Curve as a keyword to find discussion on this.

    I am very skeptical of McFerrin's comment that this happens all over the world. It probably works for the audiences that he performs for predominantly in Europe and North America and audiences that regularly listen to musics from his culture. I very much doubt that it would work at a concert for traditional people from the highlands of New Guinea where I grew up.

  • Boris Desgeyl

    Interisting disussion – unfortunately detected but now. I think another point is, that Bobby McFerrin suggests the relation and so the interval of the tones by the length of his jumps. Could be illuminating, if he would jump e.g. between the Db and the Bb.