Tag Archives: Communicative Musicality

The Musical Brain

I’m continually indebted to Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), and in particular to Dr. Katie Overy, for flagging up many interesting events. In the relatively recent past I have attended a fascinating conference entitled Communicative Musicality and a lecture on Musical Entrainment.

Two more promising events have been brought to my attention in the last couple of days.

The first of these, entitled The Musical Brain, concerns the growing field which links music and neuroscience.*

The second, entitled The Child’s Curriculum: ‘What is the Value of Early Childhood Education and Care?’ concentrates on “ the value of early childhood education and care, with a particular focus on the implications for future practice and policy in Scotland.” This event is, which takes place in Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians, is free but registration is required – details here.

* you can find write-ups of music/neuroscience events I attended in The Wellcome Collection – here, here and here.

Interest in this area has led me to some interesting books which I can recommend:

This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen
Communicative Musicality edited by Stephen Malloch and Colwyn Trevarthen
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Two cultures, beating as one

On a day where news broadcasts debate the disengagement of some young people from science (scroll down to 0720), I was heartened to receive an email alerting me to the publication of an article entitled The Rhythmic Brain by Katie Overy & Robert Turner. Both contributed to a fascinating conference I attended at Edinburgh University in December*. Put simply, the article touches upon connections between music – specifically rhythm – and language, evolution, neuroscience, psychology, learning, memory & genetics.

What disappoints me in some attempts to convince young people of the relevance of science is the all too easy citation of computer games. I tend to agree more with Quentin Cooper who opines that “science is a perspective.” There is a scientific aspect to everything. That’s why I applaud the efforts of organisations like The Wellcome Collection and Edge to heal the rift between sciences and the humanities and pursue The Third Culture. I am strengthened in this belief that some of the best writing on music is the work of scientists – a great many of whom are musicians.

Consider this extract from the aforementioned article:

Rhythm is a basic organising principle of music, providing a strict temporal framework for an infinite variety of playful and expressive musical behaviours, from clapping and dancing in a group to a virtuosic violin solo. This temporal organisation exists on a number of hierarchical levels (the pulse, the bar, the phrase), allowing for the simplest forms of synchronisation and prediction as well as highly complex, large-scale musical structures.

Music is a difficult topic on which to write – precisely because it conveys in seconds what words would take minutes to describe. I would argue that the distillation of content in the short paragraph above is nothing short of poetic.


* My intention had been to write up the conference but, as it was built around a book entitled Communicative Musicality, I think it would be better to write on the book once I’ve read it.



A strange thought occurred to me today while watching a DVD performance today of Raymond Scott‘s The Penguin by Mr McFall’s Chamber (check out TheirSpace ). As far as I know there is not a YouTube video of McFall’s playing this and so, to give you an idea, here it is performed by Racalmuto:

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I think we’d all agree that the piece (particularly the introduction) could be described as comical – or at the very least light hearted.

Hearing it today reminded me of a remark made at a conference I attended last Saturday entitled Communicative Musicality. The contention expressed was that music, unlike language, does not have semantics. This prompted me to wonder how, given such conditions, this tune has the potential to be unmistakably humorous – even if played in an incongruous setting e.g. a cathedral, or at an inappropriate occasion e.g. a coronation or a funeral (I’d like to have it at my own – funeral, that is). I would go as far as to imagine that nobody from a culture entirely at odds with our own would mistake this for serious music. Surely our perennial vagueness about music is unnecessary and the quixotic elements of this piece could be isolated and their contribution to the overall mood evaluated.

This in turn reminded me of another topic in the conference: how should emotions be conveyed to the audience by a performer? Is it appropriate for the performer to join in? Might they get carried away and be unable to switch emotion when change comes along? You’ll notice that no-one in the above laughing or even smiling – mind you three of them are blowing into things!

If my ears are up to the job, I’d like to transcribe this piece and arrange it for guitar ensemble one day. If successful, I promise not to instruct the pupils to perceive it in a comical light and also to report their reaction to it.

p.s. this piece appears in the climactic and heart-warming circus scene of the film Funny Bones – well worth watching for this scene alone, featuring Freddie Davies – seen in this lugubrious photo from the film.