A book with the title “This Is Your Brain on Music” would, presumably, be of great interest to a musician like Sting. His gray matter has been on the stuff for a career that spans four decades. What the once and future Police frontman could not have anticipated is that by reading the book, authored by rocker-turned-McGill University neurologist Daniel Levitin, Sting would end up inside an fMRI machine.
As coincidence would have it, in the wake of reading Levitin’s book, Sting was headed to a concert in Montreal. Also located in the city is Levitin’s lab, which Sting decided to visit. Levitin knows music — he was a record producer for groups like Santana and supplied amps to Blue Öyster Cult, according to his biography — and he also knows when he has a rich scientific opportunity on his hands. So as part of the laboratory tour, the neuroscientist sprung his own invitation on Sting.
“I asked if he also wanted to have his brain scanned,” Levitin said, according to a recent press release. “He said, ‘yes’.”
The fruits of Sting’s fMRI were recently published in a study in the August issue of the journal Neurocase. Levitin and neuroimaging expert Scott Grafton, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, describe the associations Sting’s brain made while listening to a variety of songs — drawing from pop songs, muzak, jazz, R&B, tango and rock.
“Sting’s brain scan pointed us to several connections between pieces of music that I know well but had never seen as related before,” Levitin said. Based on the activity patterns in Sting’s brain, measured by similar voxel shapes (which are sort of like 3-D pixels), the scientists say they could determine which songs seemed most similar to Sting — not in his musical opinion, but by what his brain was registering.
In Sting’s mind the muzak and Top 100 songs occupied their own categories, more or less, the authors wrote. But some interesting associations popped up among other tunes. For instance, Sting’s brain showed similar patterns of activity while listening to “Moon over Bourbon Street” (by Sting) and “Green Onions” (by Booker T. & the M.G.’s).
As the neuroscientists point out, both songs have swing rhythms, 132 beats per minute and are in the key of F minor.
Likewise, Sting’s brain registered “Girl” by the Beatles and a tango by Ástor Piazzolla as similar; both of those tunes have minor keys and, as the researchers argue, complementary musical riffs.
If you wanted to get insight into how an intelligent pop-rock star thinks, you could do much worse than Sting, a 16-time Grammy winner whose Scrabble-playing intensity was once compared to a death struggle. Sting, for his part, minces no words about his estimation of his musical talent. As he told the Boston Herald in 1993, when contrasting his performance to alt-rock upstarts:
“I’m quite prepared to take any of those bands on stage and blow them off. We’re better musicians,” he said. “We sing better. We write better songs. So bleep them.”
Sting is not the only musician to put his head in a machine and have someone hit record — the Brit artist Sivu released a three-minute music video of himself singing in an MRI (the tongue motions are particularly hypnotic). Music and brain research have a rich history, too. Scientists have determined that the brains of professional musicians differ in shape from those sitting in the skulls of amateurs and non-musicians. While composers come up with new songs, their neurons typically used for vision and movement are “recruited,” as one 2015 study put it, into the act of musical creation.
It can be tempting to imagine that musical masters must have been born into genius. After all, Sting’s child, Eliot Sumner, is an accomplished musician, too. The child prodigy is a powerful theme in music history; a 2014 genetic study of twins found a significant role for genes in musical prowess.
But counter to the idea that it was all Sting’s genes imbuing Sumner with a musical gift, brain research also indicates that the act of playing instruments or creating music changes gray matter.
“People can get the impression that musicians are alien beings whose brains are wired differently,” as Elizabeth Margulis, a Columbia University cognitive scientist who studies music perception, told the Pacific Standard in 2008. The brain scans she took of expert flute and violin players, which were startlingly similar, indicate “it’s a matter of the experience you have had in your life.”
There is no doubt Sting’s musical brain is impressive — but every little thing it does is not magic.