This is Your Brain on Bach
“When Music Tells Us Something”
The McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind
Integrated Concert and Lecture
November 5, 8 PM
A German neuroscientist, a husband-and-wife team of pianists and a Hungarian-born mezzo-soprano walk into Convocation Hall. Waiting for them are two flute-bearing McMaster faculty members and two grand pianos, not to mention a crowd of curious students, faculty and community members.
Is this a joke without a punch line? More like an oddly fascinating way to spend a Saturday night. The McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind’s seventh annual Integrated Concert and Lecture brought together music and neuroscience without cheapening either discipline.
Dr. Stefan Koelsch of the Freie Universität Berlin presented graphs of brain activity, summaries of key experiments and several jokes about the Germanic predilection for cold beer in an effort to convey the multiple meanings of music. Although his initial focus on terminology was a little disengaging, it paved the way for an exploration of what music can tell us. What truly made the content relatable, however, were the musical stylings of Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann. Pounding on their grand pianos, they brought music out of the laboratory and onto the stage.
Starting the integrated lecture with a rendition of the First Memphisto Waltz, an emotionally intense, back-and-forth piece describing fiddle-stealing, frenzied dancing and naked frolicking, the Bergmanns set the tone for a powerful evening. Throughout the lecture, Koelsch was able to employ their expertise to illustrate points of his lecture. Symbolic music, for example, was accompanied by a classy rendition of the Sleep Country Canada jingle.
Margaret Bardos, the mezzo-soprano, layered her voice on top of the pianos for several songs. Also contributing their talents were two of McMaster’s own. Laurel Trainor and David Gerry, both professors associated with the MIMM, piped in with flutes for a few pieces, most memorably in “Toast and Eggs”, in which the melody they provided wove the morning sounds of a kitchen into a song. This piece was not out of place in an eclectic selection of music that ranged from The Rape of Lucretia to West Side Story to The Sound of Music. In a way, this variety in genre supported one of the main ideas of the talk – that the ability to find meaning in music is universal.
After most pieces, Koelsch began to analyze the component parts for meaning. But nearer to the end of the lecture, he simply instructed the audience to appreciate the sounds instead of picking them apart – he encouraged the crowd to let their hands drum on chair backs and their feet tap on floors. All he wanted, he concluded by saying, was to convince us that “music is not meaningless.” It seemed a rather modest goal for such a meaningful night, but one that was handily achieved.