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Music on the Brain: Discovering the Science of Music in Edinburgh

Photograph of the blog post author, Mary Woodcock

Mary Woodcock


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What happens to the human brain when it listens to music? In this special Edinburgh International Science Festival discussion hosted by Helen Arney, and featured panellists; Professor Trevor Cox, Dr Katie Overy, Will Pickvance, Philip Ball, & Peregrine Andrews, we learn how music affects our brains.



How Musician’s Brains Work


Music phycologist, Dr Katie Overy began by discussing her research using MRI scans to study the brain, whilst a musician is playing. She has determined that brain activity is significantly higher while playing an instrument. She has also found that listening to music also increases brain activity.

She also discussed how music affects our emotions. “We can draw rich and emotional information from music,” she said, “It can be personal, social, and cultural.” The social aspect of music is amplified in large groups. From concert anthems to chants at sporting events, music bonds us.

Emotional Music in Television


Sound designer, Peregrine Andrews discussed how adding music and sound to film and television scenes can help convince an audience they are watching something ‘real’. From playing clips from several BBC comedies he has worked on, including Bluestone 42, Nurse and W1A.

Andrews demonstrates that adding background noise and appropriate music can help the audience feel as though they are watching a situation unfold. He also states that using sound in this way is a very subtle technique. “It is the art of the invisible. You spend hours trying to get people not to notice you.”

Don’t Try This at Home.


Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering, spoke about a recent experiment he performed on himself when he gave up music for lent. He said giving up music is extremely difficult and can have side effects. “I couldn’t do anything. It was a misery. I got very jaded and moody from a lack of music.

“I felt tired, and could not do what I usually do to relax. I could not listen to music or watch TV. Even Radio 4 has musical jingles. So much music went round my head, my brain was trying to compensate. I would not recommend this!”

Music is a ‘Sugary Sweet’ Without the Calories


Finally, science writer Philip Ball and pianist, Will Pickvance discussed how musical chords and cadences effect our emotions. He said, “Music is like a sugary sweet to our brains.” Music can be deeply satisfying to us and repeated listening does not diminish the satisfaction, as we crave hearing the completed phrases.


Afterword with Peregrine Andrews

After the event, Peregrine Andrews discussed how he got into sound design and working with the BBC. “I applied for a sponsorship from the BBC when I was going to university. I did electronic engineering at university with a BBC sponsorship, which meant I did placements at the BBC.

“I did a lot of live music recording in a big truck at Glastonbury Festival. I did that for about 4 years and that is when I went freelance, and that is where I started to diversify and got into doing TV. It was only really then that I started doing sound design.”


Advice on How to Break Into TV

Andrews offered advice for engineers and sound specialists on how to break into the film and television industry. “In my experience of getting work, my CV is my list of credits. As long as they see some evidence of work, that is their vote of confidence. I wouldn’t say you would need a sound design degree. You need to understand the process and you have to have a good ear.

“Sometimes it is just about talking to people. You can meet a director and you just have a chat. Within that chat, a trust will be transferred, it is quite a strange process. If they think your attitude is right, they will probably trust you.”

For freelancers, winning work can be as much about the quality of a smile than the quality of the work. “When I first went freelance, what set you apart was how nice you were and how pleasant you could be. People would want to work with you because they would feel comfortable with you in the studio. You could probably be a less technical engineer, but be likable, and you do better. Bedside manner is extremely significant.”

His biggest piece of advice for freelance engineers is being prepared to work for free in order to develop experience and industry contacts. “I mixed a lot of free films, and I made a contact through that, which was how I got into the BBC. By working for nothing on a few projects, it paid back. People will give you a break because they are not paying you.”

You can hear Peregrines work on the BBC Radio 3 Between the Ears show; Wake Up Baby, airing Saturday 6 June, 9:30pm.

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