It’s such sweet music, in every sense


Science lies at the back of everything real, the world we walk through and breathe in and see and hear. Although there are those who prefer to draw lines between the sensory, the spiritual and the scientific, who regard the investigation and hopeful explanation of phenomena as the end of poetry and mystery, it strikes me as an oddly self-limiting approach, given that science itself is a beautiful thing, and the best scientists are poetical thinkers.

Knowing how sound works, for instance -- that it is a chain of waves transferred from source to air to little bones and hairs within the ear and converted into bioelectrical impulses that are “played” by the brain -- only gives one more things to wonder at.

The ways in which that process becomes something more than sound is the subject of a rich and rambling new documentary, “The Music Instinct: Science and Song,” premiering tonight on PBS. It takes the most ineffable of the arts and looks at it from every which way. (“To me as a physicist, sound is the actual wave,” says an actual physicist, delighted by the very shapes such waves may take.)


On its long and winding way, the program takes in physiology, neurobiology, medicine, anthropology, psychology, physics, quantum mechanics (in string theory everything is vibration), with practical demonstrations by deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie; pianist Daniel Barenboim; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and British indie rock royals Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, who help investigate the physical effects of musical collaboration (Cocker sings the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” from within an MRI machine, while Hawley accompanies him on guitar).

Bobby McFerrin, the singing-conducting “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” man, co-hosts with neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (“This Is Your Brain on Music”), who also knows his way around a musical instrument or two.

We meet singing cavemen and a dancing bird. We hear the sound of a 3,500-year-old flute and what an intrauterine microphone picks up from the world outside the womb (more than you might think). We learn that music releases dopamine (“Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, right there in the brain,” one expert says), and that it can regulate the breathing of infants and the heartbeat of cardiac patients.

Dr. Oliver Sacks (who wrote a whole book on the subject, “Musicophilia”) tells of a man struck by lightning who developed a thirst for piano music, and of how music sticks in the mind even of Alzheimer’s patients.

We learn a little about the way that the brain processes music (it lights up all over, with rhythm and pitch and timbre remotely processed, then perfectly integrated) and the body reacts to it. Nature versus nurture is an ongoing theme: What do we bring to music, congenitally, and what do we learn once we’re out in the world? How does music work within and between cultures? Lullabies share characteristics around the world, but minor chords, which we think of as “sad,” are not sad everywhere -- and yet people who have never heard Western music can identify the emotions it means to convey. Babies prefer consonant music to dissonant, which helps explain the Wiggles. Syncopation is a form of surprise.

“The Music Instinct” might at times play better to those who won’t be slowed down or put off by talk of the harmonic series, intervals or enharmonic change. But that barely counts as a reservation, really -- as regards this splendidly expansive documentary.




‘The Music Instinct: Science and Song’

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)