Lately we’ve had several posts on this blog relating to music – like music therapist Kimberly Sena Moore’s excellent guest post on why music therapy works, and Cyrus’s posts about your brain on jazz and using music to treat brain injuries. This reminded me of a presentation by Bobby McFerrin from the 2009 World Science Festival entitled “Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale.” It’s quite amazing that he is able to get the audience to instinctively predict and sing the musical patterns he presents with no cues other than his position on the stage. Watch the 3-minute presentation to see what
What do you think? I was amazed when I saw this video. I couldn’t believe that jumping around the stage elicited an expected predictive response from the collective group. So why and how does it work? How does the audience know what auditory output to create solely based on McFerrin’s relative position on stage?
First, it bears explaining that McFerrin is relying on intrinsic knowledge of a major pentatonic scale – a scale that has 5 notes per octave. Pentatonic scales are considered universal, as they can be found in traditional and formal music from all over the world. However, there are several different variations of 5 note scales: the one here is a major pentatonic scale, which is commonly found in Western music. For example, the melodies of songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Oh Susannah” are based on major pentatonic scales. However, other cultures use 5-note scales in which the notes are spaced in a different manner than the major pentatonic scale.
First, listen to this clip of “Oh Susannah” to hear the relationship of the note intervals. Now, try this clip of music from the Andes. Can you hear the difference? Here’s one more- a video clip of a Chinese zither player, whose song has a significantly different feel than either the Andean tune or “Oh Susannah.” Even if you aren’t a musician, you can tell from these clips that these songs do not sound alike in the way the notes relate to one another. (If you’re interested in learning even more about different scales from around the world, I recommend this in-depth article on the topic, or visiting this site that has a variety of sound files of different scales.)
So now that we have the background and we know this is a largely Western audience, let’s think about how McFerrin does this trick. By first establishing a few base notes with the audience, he is easily able to guide them through a major pentatonic pattern, because that’s what their brains expect the pattern to be. Some people argue that this as an “instinctual” response, but there is a much stronger case to be made that this is a learned response, based on expectations learned over time by repeated exposure to the dominant musical patterns of your culture. The people in the video (and those watching) are surprised and amused by what happens because they don’t even know that their brains have learned to expect this culturally prevalent musical pattern. McFerrin shows us that your brain knows things that you don’t even know it knows.
I would be very interested to see what would happen if he tried this trick with an audience that was predominantly native Chinese or from another culture that favors a non-major pentatonic scale!