I know. You’re waiting to hear about mirror neurons and music and we’ll get to that. But the story of the discovery of mirror neurons is really too good to pass up because it was one of those serendipitous discoveries that has sometimes happened in the history of science. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is probably the best-known, but other revolutionary discoveries that happened quite by chance include insulin, quinine, the smallpox vaccine, nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics, and the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). In case you don’t know about PCR, it’s sometimes called “molecular photocopying,” and it is used to amplify a single strand of DNA, generating the significant amounts of a sample DNA that are necessary for molecular and genetic analysis, for detection of viruses and bacteria, and of course, for matching criminals to crime scenes as we regularly see on television and in movies.
You are at a concert and find that you are becoming increasingly tense, uncomfortable, and nervous as the performer experiences several memory lapses. You know by the look on a student’s face as he comes to your studio that he hasn’t practiced during the past week. A stranger smiles at you as you walk down the street and you smile back, suddenly feeling happier. You know when your spouse grabs the grilling tongs while you are enjoying dinner outdoors that he isn’t about to turn the vegetables on the grill, he’s going to throw the tongs at the woodchuck that’s gnawing on a tree in your yard (strange, but true).
I thought I had finished writing this post when a fascinating new study appeared in my Inbox, and I simply had to incorporate it. Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered that, for several months after birth, infants can recognize a melody that they have heard in utero. In a study of 24 women conducted during the final trimester of pregnancy, half of the women played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to their fetuses five days a week for the last few weeks of their pregnancies, half did not. (Yes, the researchers really used Twinkle, Twinkle.) Continue reading
Music has usually been studied as a cultural product – specific to a certain time and place. We associate different kinds of music, tuning systems, qualities of the sound and kinds of instruments with different ethnic groups or different cultural societies. And we attribute different structural forms, harmonic systems and (again) instruments to various time periods. We learn why Bach could only have written what he did during the era that came to be known as the Baroque and why the minimalism of Philip Glass or Steve Reich could only have happened in the late twentieth century (although Satie came close in the late 19th century). Continue reading