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?”