Following a recent show in Montreal, Sting met with Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist at McGill University to have fMRI images of his brain taken as part of an ongoing study of how the brain of a skilled musician analyzes and organizes music. In a paper outlining the study published on McGill’s website, Levitin explains that he and his partners have developed imaging-analysis techniques to provide insight into how gifted individuals find connections between seemingly disparate thoughts or sounds, in fields ranging from arts, to politics, to science. “These state-of-the-art techniques really allowed us to make maps of how Sting’s brain organizes music. That’s important because at the heart of great musicianship is the ability to manipulate in one’s mind rich representations of the desired soundscape.”
The research came about as a result of a mutual admiration between Sting and the McGill psychologist. Years ago, Sting read Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, and asked to meet Levitin and take a tour of his facilities, as many musicians have done over the years. While there, Levitin asked if Sting would be interested in having his brain scanned, and the musician obliged.
Both functional and structural scans were conducted in a single session at the brain imaging unit of McGill’s Montreal Neurological Institute on the hot afternoon of his July 5th concert with Peter Gabriel at the Bell Centre (part of their current Rock Paper Scissors Tour). A power outage knocked the entire campus off-line for several hours, threatening to cancel the experiment. Because it takes over an hour to reboot the fMRI machine, time grew short. Sting graciously agreed to skip his soundcheck in order to accurately complete the scan.
Levitin then teamed up with Scott Grafton, a leading brain-scan expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to use two novel techniques to analyze the scans. The techniques showed which songs Sting found similar to one another and which ones he found dissimilar based not on tests or questionnaires, but on activations of brain regions. Says Grafton, “At the heart of these methods is the ability to test if patterns of brain activity are more alike for two similar styles of music compared to different styles. This approach has never before been considered in brain imaging experiments of music.”
According to Levitin, “Sting’s brain scan pointed us to several connections between pieces of music that I know well but had never seen as related before.” The most surprising neural connection was the similarity in brain activity between Piazzolla’s “Libertango”, a tango composition, and the Beatles‘ “Girl” off 1965’s Rubber Soul. While the songs differ greatly in sound and genre, both pieces are in minor keys and include similar melodic motifs. Another example of similar neurological responses to seemingly different songs was Sting’s own “Moon Over Bourbon Street” and Booker T. and the MG‘s “Green Onions”, both of which have the same 132 bpm tempo and a swinging rhythm. While more information is needed to draw any scientific conclusions, these tests provide insight into the connecting factors between different kinds of music in terms of how they are received and processed by the mind of a musician.
[via McGill University]