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The Pentatonic Scale And The Human Brain.


The Pentatonic Scale is something that almost every musician would have learnt in their early days. No matter the genre, the Pentatonic Scale proves to be a very powerful tool in improvising solos. Even though less is known about how the human brain interprets music, it's been observed that it responds to recognizable patterns such as the Pentatonic quite instinctively.

Jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin demonstrated this theory at the World Science Festival in 2009 when he participated in a talk called “Notes & Neurons: In Search of a Common Chorus”.

McFerrin begins with guiding the audience through a few notes of the Major Pentatonic scale assigning a position on the stage for each of the notes. He then allows the audience to get familiar with each of the notes by indicating them based on the positions on stage. What happens next is quite impressive. The audience instinctively guesses the rest of the notes as McFerrin moves away from the assigned positions.

McFerrin also mentions at the end “Now, what’s interesting to me about that is, regardless of where I am , anywhere , every audience gets that..”.

That makes us wonder how close music really is to human life. Watch the video below to see how it happened at the World Science Festival.

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This is one of my favorite TED talks.

Here's an interesting thought along these lines: the exact same brain activity occurs when you remember a song or sound in your head as when you actually physically hear it, which is why I don't have perfect pitch (I developed relative pitch) but I can name notes out of thin air by thinking of the first note of my favorite Beatles songs.


For instance, if I need to sing a "D" I think "Words are flowing.." from Across the Universe.

I discovered this trick by accident when I started singing the next song in the silence between one album track and the next and noticed I was dead on pitch when the music actually started up.  


Then I just had to find 12 different songs whose first notes match each note of the chromatic scale.  What can I say, I'm a musical nerd.

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