Wellcome Collection event about music

If you’re in London this coming weekend, you should drop by the “Why Music?” events at the Wellcome Collection, organised in collaboration with BBC3. The weekend is packed full with three days of talks, workshops and performances all about how music shapes us.


Some events are ticketed, but there are a lot of drop-in events as well, so even if you don’t have any tickets, there’s a lot to see and listen to. Here are few drop-in events that look particularly interesting, with description by the organisers:


Music as medicine – Saturday September 26, 19:30 – 22:00

“Claudia Hammond discusses music and health with guests including music psychologist Adam Ockelford and vocal coach, performer and educator Mary King. They will be exploring how music can help both physical and mental wellbeing, and looking at health problems encountered by musicians.”


The singing ape – Sunday September 27, 14:00 -18:00

“Tom Service probes the latest theories about the origins of music making and how it might have affected human evolutionary development. Was there music before language? Has music helped shape the human brain? Is music anything more than just ‘auditory cheesecake’? To help answer these and many other questions, Tom is joined by Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct, and Steven Mithen, one of the pioneers of cognitive archaeology.”


Music matters: manipulating the mind – Saturday September 26, 13:00 – 14:00

“In a special edition of Music Matters, Tom Service is joined by guests to explore how music can be used to manipulate or control patterns of behaviour. This ranges from music’s use as a tool to subdue or intimidate, and its use in public places to tackle antisocial behaviour or influence consumer activity, to the subconscious role it has in our daily lives. The programme will look at historical and present-day examples and delve into the science behind music’s persuasive effect on the brain.”

Daniel Levitin at BBC Proms

It’s BBC Proms time again! Every summer, the BBC hosts several weeks of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, culminating in the popular Proms in the Park event. Last Friday was the First Night of the Proms, and on Saturday afternoon, I made my way to South Kensington to attend the next thing on the programme: a science lecture.

Neuroscientist (and former music producer) Daniel Levitin has written extensively about music and the brain, and was invited to speak at the Proms about some of the ways the brain processes music.

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Daniel Levitin and host Rana Mitter on stage at the Royal College of Music

In his talk, Levitin explained how we can distinguish music from non-musical sounds, and how different parts of the brain detect and process loudness, pitch, duration and timbre of musical notes. He also introduced us to Brodmann Area 47 – a part of the brain that tracks expectations. This area is active when people are trying to predict what comes next in a piece of music. A good piece of music contains some predictable elements, so you have a frame of reference, and will occasionally divert from that.

Last week, Levitin outlined in a Guardian article how, later this Proms season, the Aurora Orchestra would be playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony without the aid of any sheet music in front of them. In his Proms lecture he also talked about this orchestra’s feat, and summarized the three hooks they use to help them memorize the symphony: auditory memory, motor memory, and ensemble cues. The latter means that not every individual player has to memorize everything. Instead, they use cues from other players to help them remember.

There was plenty of audience participation in the lecture. We sang the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth, completed melodies, guessed songs based on hearing less than a note of it, and learned how we were able to recognize familiar pieces of music even if they were played on unfamiliar instruments – like a table saw.

It was an entertaining lecture to attend, and if you’re quick, you can listen to it yourself: The entire talk was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 that same evening, and is still available online until August 17.

Trap door conductors

This summer I’ve played under about two hundred different orchestra conductors. Some were pretty good, others didn’t even know how to hold the baton, and all of them went straight to a funeral after they finished.

20121008-151929.jpgThe conductors were unsuspecting audience members of You Me Bum Bum Train – a theatre preformance where the scenes take place in different rooms of a converted office building, and the audience “passengers” move from one scene to the next, never knowing what to expect, or what would be expected of them.

After helping in a kitchen in the first scene, passengers were asked to serve tables, and grab wine from a stock room. The “stock room” was a small cabinet around a moving platform that pushed the passenger upward. Suddenly, they were standing behind a conductor’s stand, facing a full orchestra waiting for the downbeat.

In the orchestra we had no idea whether the person coming up through the floor could read music, was familiar with the popular classic work on their stand, or even had any sense of rhythm whatsoever. We started playing when they started conducting, and if they did a reasonable job of beating a rhythm we followed them. If they didn’t conduct appreciable beats, we followed the concert master.

20121008-151940.jpgAfter two minutes, the conductor disappeared again through the trap door. They went on to a funeral scene, where they had to give a eulogy, while we had a few seconds to eat candy, drink water, or switch to the next piece before our newest conductor would be pushed up through the floor.

We played familiar fragments from famous works, like the Can Can, William Tell Overture, Eroica, and others, so most people were able to conduct a basic beat. Some even pointed at the correct sections are the right time. Others flailed and held the baton at the wrong end. It was always a surprise what would happen.

The performance was in London, so I could only volunteer in the orchestra on weekends. I was in three shows, each with 60-70 passengers. I missed the nights that Stephen Fry, Danny Boyle, Dominic West, Sir Ian McKellen, and other well-known people came through, but I heard they liked it.

20121008-152140.jpgThe entire time that she show ran, from July to early October, everyone was sworn to secrecy. Thousands of volunteers and passengers all signed a confidentiality agreement. I played twice in July and once in August, so I’ve been sitting on this for a long time before I could finally write about it…

This year, You Me Bum Bum Train was part of London 2012 – the arts festival surrounding the Olympics – but they’ve been doing performances for several years, always with different scenes. There probably won’t be an orchestra scene next time, but if there’s another scene I can volunteer in I’ll probably do it again, because it was one of the most fun things I did all summer!

Doctor Who music

More than a year ago, I got some sheet music for string quartet arrangements for a piece of music from Doctor Who. Since then, an entire season of Doctor Who came and went, and I never got around to doing anything with the music. I planned to figure out how to play the various parts on violin, and then assemble them into one piece, but I kept finding reasons not to.

It was too late at night, or too early in the morning. I was travelling. I was moving house. My bow needed rehairing. My strings needed replacing. My digital recorder broke. My headphones weren’t working. I had no time.

I promised myself I’d do it before the next season of Doctor Who would air. That wasn’t until September, so I had lots of time.

Suddenly it was late August, and I only had one week until my self-imposed deadline. Nothing is as motivating as a rapidly approaching deadline, so last weekend I spent a few hours playing and recording and grumbling and starting over and editing, and it’s DONE.The new episode airs tomorrow, so just in time, here’s “I Am The Doctor” on violin.

This is about 75% of the music for an entire string quartet (orig. Murray Gold/Arr. Minh Pham) played only on violin, and then edited together. It was really hard to get things in the right place, and it didn’t work everywhere. It’s also out of tune in various places, and I hear every single mistake, argh! I know how I would have played it differently if it actually was a string quartet rather than me listening to myself through iPod headphones (also, it *really* needs a cello), but it’s the best I could do… Maybe I shouldn’t pick a piece in 7/4 next time I try this sort of thing!

Right after I finished this, I had a look on YouTube to see what else was out there, and that led me to the MOST AMAZING THING ON THE INTERNET! There is a Doctor Who Fan Orchestra! People each record one part of an arrangement of Doctor Who music, and it’s assembled into one piece and it sounds SO MUCH BETTER than what I did myself! Look/listen!

Their next call for musicians is in September, so I’m going to pay close attention and will try to get in, because this is just PERFECT!

Elgar’s Explosion

Composer Edward Elgar had a chemistry lab in a shed in his yard. There’s an anecdote about this lab in Elgar’s biography by W.H. Reed, and it’s quoted verbatim in pretty much every other source about it. Because it’s only a second-hand anecdote in one biography, it’s hard to say whether it’s entirely true, so the only way to cite it is to quote it. I went for a different interpretation… (The full quote from Reed is below.)

The section from “Elgar as I knew him”, by W.H. Reed, that inspired this comic:

“One day he made a phosphoric concoction which, when dry, would “go off” by spontaneous combustion. The amusement was to smear it on a piece of blotting paper and then wait breathlessly for the catastrophe. One day he made too much paste; and, when his music called him and he wanted to go back to the house, he clapped the whole of it into a gallipot, covered it up, and dumped it into the water-butt, thinking it would be safe there.

Just as he was getting on famously, writing in horn and trumpet parts, and mapping out wood-wind, a sudden and unexpected crash, as of all the percussion in all the orchestras on earth, shook the room, followed by the “rushing mighty sound” he had already anticipated in The Kingdom. The water-butt had blown up: the hoops were rent: the staves flew in all directions; and the liberated water went down the drive in a solid wall.

Silence reigned for a few seconds. Then all the dogs in Herefordshire gave tongue; and all the doors and windows opened. After a moment’s thought, Edward lit his pipe and strolled down to the gate, andante tranquillo, as if nothing had happened and the ruined water-butt and the demolished flower-beds were pre-historic features of the landscape. A neighbour, peeping out of his gate, called out, “Did you hear that noise sir: it sounded like an explosion?” “Yes,” said Sir Edward, “I heard it: where was it?” The neighbour shook his head; and the incident was closed. “


It’s a long weekend in the UK, so I’m working on my favourite side project – people who do both science and music. (It really needs a catchy title. Suggestions?)

I’ve been doing a bit of writing, but the past weeks were mainly research. The research phase never seems to end, but that’s okay, because it might actually be my favourite part. I keep finding out new things. This week, I found a cool infographic, via Michelle Oyen on Twitter, who got it from Marie-Claire Shanahan, who I incidentally happened to meet last week but I didn’t realise at the time that she’s the person who does the Song of the Week on the Finch and Pea. Science/music people, they are everywhere!

The infographic in question was one from the CBC Music Blog about seventeen musicians with PhDs. The top of the image (below) shows the distribution of fields of music and academics of this handful of people.

It’s only a small sample, but it’s interesting to note that most of them have science or mathematics PhDs. But as commenter Aeg points out on the article, that might just be an artifact of more people pursuing PhDs in those fields, and it would be good to compare the numbers with a graph of the areas that people generally receive PhDs in.

Let’s find a graph!

Even though the musicians in the infographic come from different countries, databases of doctorate holders are usually specific for one country. Let’s look at the US, because they have been keeping track, and the data are all available online.

For several decades, the US government has been using the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to carry out the Survey of Earned Doctorates – a study that shows which kind of people get PhDs in which disciplines. Even though the total number of PhD recipients has gone up in all fields, the distribution between science & engineering PhDs and those in other fields has been pretty consistent: There are slightly more than twice the number of science and engineering PhDs than others.

In the music infographic, eleven of seventeen musicians have a PhD in science or math, which is about the same as the overall distribution. So going by this small sample, it seems that of the musicians with PhDs, there are not more scientists than you would expect.

Does that mean that musicians don’t like science more than the average person does? Not necessarily. There is a lot of information missing from the infographic. It’s only a sample of musicians the creators could find, and it’s biased toward fields of music they knew. Punk music is over-represented, for example, and classical music is lacking entirely. It also doesn’t look at the academic interests of musicians who do not have a PhD. If a musician starts to break through while in undergrad, they might choose not to pursue their academic interests further, and instead keep working as a musician. The infographic lists The Offspring drummer James Lilja, but Lilja left The Offspring in order to pursue his doctorate. The band’s lead singer Dexter Holland, on the other hand, abandoned his own PhD so that he could focus on the band.

Both music and academia are very time consuming, and a lot of people make a choice at some point to do one or the other. I’ve been hearing a lot of similar stories in the interviews I’ve done, and read about a bunch of others. The final picture is a complicated one. In this particular graphic, you are included if you finished a PhD and did music at some point, but not if you are so dedicated to music that you quit your PhD for it.

The reality is too complicated for an infographic – whether you look at musicians in all areas of academia or musicians working on all aspects of science. There are people with music degrees or without, people with science degrees or without, people who started or finished a PhD, people who passionately play music but don’t earn money with it, people who used to study science and then became musicians, people who used to study music and then became scientists, people who have neither a science or music degree but somehow ended up working in an area that involves both science and music.

I can give you examples of all these people, but I can’t find a way to quantify them. I’d like to, because it would give me something to base my story on. Does it matter that I have no hard numbers? If I was writing a PhD thesis, it would matter a great deal, but thankfully I never have to do that again. This is not a PhD, this is documenting a phenomenon.

I am happy to have been pointed to this infographic, though, because it gives me a few more people to add to the list of people I really want to talk to.

Google Doodle Moog

Google has a wonderful tradition of adapting its logo to current events. There is a pattern to the days that get Doodles: they are usually national holidays, human rights or environmental commemorative days, or birthdays of famous scientists, musicians, artists, or engineers.

Today the Google Doodle celebrates what would have been the 78th birthday of Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer.

The Doodle is a Moog synth, and it’s interactive! You can change the settings, play it with your mouse or with your keyboard, and you can record up to four tracks! It’s hard to play, because it’s not very responsive, but I managed to record a 2-track intro to the Dr Who theme.

I’ve been thinking about the influence of scientific discovery on music, and most of it comes from electrical engineering. The 20th century introduction of instruments such as the Moog have even led to new styles of music. I used it to play the Dr Who theme, because to my ears it *has* to be performed electronically. (The theme was a product of the BBC Radiophonic workshop, which I’ve mentioned before.)

I don’t know if the doodle will still be functional after today, so go play with it if you haven’t yet.


In early November I visited the Science Museum in London, to see the Oramics exhibit. Oramics is a musical technique developed by Daphne Oram in the late 1950s, while she worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The idea is based on the concept of depicting sound as graphs (where you can see, for example, how the amplitude of the graph gets bigger as the sound gets louder. I use that feature of Garageband to help me edit the interviews I’ve posted). Daphne Oram thought that if you can turn sound into a graph, you should also be able to start with the graph and turn that into sound.

She created the Oramics Machine, which did exactly that. As input it used film strips, on which Daphne had painted graphs and shapes. The shapes she drew were interpreted by the machine, and converted into sound.

The museum exhibit not only had the original Oramics machine on display (shown above) but also an interactive digital replica, where you could draw shapes and modify graphs, and hear the sounds change. You can’t hear the sound very well in the video, because it was coming from headphones.

After starting a study in electrotheraphy, Daphne was offered a place at the Royal College of Music, but instead she chose to combine the fields of electronics and music, and took a job as music engineer for the BBC. She was involved in the creation of the Radiophonic Workshop, but left a year after its inception to set up her own studio.

Science Showoff – my talk!

Here (at the bottom of this post) is the full talk I gave at Science Showoff on December 7.

Notice how I neatly kept it within the allotted 9 minutes! I did cut out about three words where I was bumbling a bit, but otherwise this is the full thing. For quality purposes, I edited the original audio files in rather than the recording of them being played over the PA system.

To understand the groans at the mention of chemistry, and my toast comment, you need to know that at the start of the evening compere Steve Cross did an extensive joke about how all the Royal Society of Chemistry’s press releases are about toast rather than about chemistry. (Case in point: the toast sandwich.)

Here’s the talk:

I was also a prop/”volunteer” in Rob Wells’ set that night, playing the part of the Hubble Telescope, and I appear to have also won the exam that was passed around during Tom Whyntie’s set (assignment: make art using Feynman diagrams) so it was a busy (and fun!) evening.

Science Showoff!

Next week, on December 7, I’ll be speaking in London as part of Science Showoff. I’ll have tiny fragments from some of the interviews on here, as well as anecdotes about slightly more famous scientist-musicians. 

Some of the other performers that night are actually making music about science, but there’s also comedy and sports – all related to science!

Do come if you’re in or near London!