It's the thought that counts

A neurobiology expert takes a look at sound and the science of music at next week’s Cinema and Brain Week at the cinematheque.

Brains 521 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Brains 521
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
The second annual Cinema and Brain Week kicks off at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 10 and, as at last year’s inaugural event, explores the cerebral side of the arts and silver- screen entertainment.
Running for six days, the event, which is co-sponsored by the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) and the cinematheque, features an intriguing roster of lectures, panel discussions and, naturally, screenings as part of Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign designed to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.
The last slot of the festival, on March 15, goes by the brow-furrowing title “About Chaos and Order – Between Brain and Music,” and will be presented by Prof. Israel Nelken from the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences Institute and the Hebrew University’s Department of Neurobiology.
Nelken takes a scientific approach to the business of listening to music, and tries to fathom how our brain makes sense of patterns of sounds and individual sounds.
“I am fascinated by the wonder of how oscillations in the air turn into something from which one can make music,” explains Nelken, who has been researching in the field for almost two decades. “We are talking about oscillations that are produced by a musical instrument, or from my mouth, or from a loudspeaker.
The source is immaterial, it is how a temporary series of pressure points turns into sounds.”
Of course, there is very little point in having a sound without anyone around to hear and appreciate it.
“The sounds reach the ear and cause the eardrum to vibrate, and ultimately turn into electricity. It is the electricity that you eventually hear as music,” he says.
That may sound a bit cold and scientific for people who prefer to float away on the heady works of the classical music world, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its massive choral element. But, in fact, Nelken knows exactly where the average music fan is coming from, and enjoys tickling the ivories himself. There is more hands-on music in the Nelken household, and the professor’s wife, viola da gamba player Miriam, will be on call, together with harpsichord player Yizhar Karshon, to provide some immediate and audible demonstrations of Nelken’s theories at the “About Chaos and Order – Between Brain and Music” lecture.
Nelken certainly has a refreshing, if not revolutionary, perception of how we hear and sense music.
“Most people would say that we use the sense of hearing to grasp music, but at the most fundamental level, I would say that...
according to our current understanding of the auditory system, ‘music’ starts at the point where hearing ends. The hearing sense takes the oscillations and turns them into auditory objects. At the start of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, you hear the trumpet and the orchestra. What reaches your ear is the combination of all of that, the trumpet and the orchestra cause your eardrum to vibrate, but your brain receives something else entirely.”
According to Nelken, what we see or hear is not necessarily exactly what is out there.
“We take in information that has all sorts of meanings, which can be interpreted in all sorts of ways,” he says, adding that our brain tends to put the music admitted through the ear into some kind of recognizable order. “The hearing system creates the objects that musicology works with – the sounds, the different musical instruments and the intervals.
The representation of sound is a very complex matter. But when you look, not at the sound, but the organization of sounds into sequences, you find sensitivity at a very early stage of the hearing system. If you look, not at the individual sound but at the tune, for instance, it is important to see whether the tune is repeated.”
Nelken says the more challenging a piece of music is, the harder the brain works to make some sense out of the vibrations of the eardrum.
“When the brain perceives that the sounds are orderly its activity decreases, and we see that when we mess up the sequence of sounds the electrical activity in the brain increases.”
According to Nelken, the brain can generally take a breather when there is music around.
“All sorts of music make massive use of repetition. Think about this: how many times have you seen your favorite movie? Ten times, maybe 20. How many times have you read your favorite book? Probably not too many times. But think about how many times you have listened to your favorite song; possibly thousands of times. There’s no comparison. In music, there is an important element of repetition.”
That also applies to the works themselves.
“Take for example Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. There is plenty of repetition there. It is a matter of the ratio of repetition and variation.
That is what makes the music more, or less, interesting.”
Mind you, you may hear the same song hundreds or thousands of times over the years, but you probably never quite hear it the same way. Our lives change and we change – physically and emotionally.
“The brain is constantly changing,” says Nelken. “Every experience you have impacts on the brain, and generates some degree of transformation. These changes are most dramatic in childhood, but they also occur in adults.”
The same can probably be said with regard to the way we respond to, and appreciate, other forms of stimuli and entertainment.
Nelken’s slot in the Cinema and Brain program also includes a screening of the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Donald Sutherland and Keira Knightley. It is a natural choice and has an omnipresent musical strand that runs through the entire film, with plenty of recurring passages.
“There is a lot of repetition in the movie,” says Nelken, “and it’s a fun movie.”
Elsewhere in the Cinema and Brain Week lineup there will be slots devoted to how the brain processes paintings, a performance by telepathy artist Lior Manor followed by a screening of 2006 thriller The Prestige, with Christopher Bale and Hugh Jackman, and a lecture by Prof. Leon Deouell, from the ELSC Department of Psychology, on Locked-in Syndrome, where a person’s cognitive abilities are so damaged that he or she is unable to communicate with the outside world. Prof. Depouell’s talk will be followed by a screening of French movie The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. •
For more information about Cinema and Brain Week: 565-4356 and