Scott Grafton Reveals Sting’s Musical Mind

August 15, 2016

ICB Co-Director Scott Grafton and Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist at McGill University recently conducted an unusual study based on brain scans of the singer-songwriter Sting. Their findings are published in the journal Neurocase, in a report entitled: Measuring the Representational Space of Music with fMRI: A Case Study with Sting.

You might wonder what brought Sting together with Grafton and Levitin. Sting had read Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music and when his concert tour brought him to Montreal he asked Levitin if he might take a tour of his lab at McGill. Levitin—whose lab has hosted visits from many popular musicians over the years—readily agreed.  And he added a unique twist: “I asked if he also wanted to have his brain scanned. He said ‘yes’.” In a single session, both functional and structural scans of Sting’s brain were completed.

The team used Grafton’s recently developed imaging-analysis techniques to provide a window into the mind of a masterful musician. The two techniques employed, known as multivoxel pattern analysis and representational dissimilarity analysis, showed which songs Sting found similar to one another and which ones are dissimilar—based not on tests or questionnaires, but on activations of brain regions.

“At the heart of these methods is the ability to test if patterns of brain activity are more alike for two similar styles of music compared to different styles. This approach has never before been considered in brain imaging experiments of music,” said Grafton, a professor in UCSB’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and director of the UCSB Brain Imaging Center.

“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 says. Piazzolla’s “Libertango” and the Beatles’ “Girl” proved to be two of the most similar. Both are in minor keys and include similar melodic motifs, the paper reveals. Another example: Sting’s own “Moon over Bourbon Street” and Booker T. and the MG’s “Green Onions,” both of which are in the key of F minor, have the same tempo (132 beats per minute) and a swing rhythm.

Grafton noted this research represents an approach that could offer insights into how other gifted individuals find connections between seemingly disparate thoughts or sounds. He noted that the methods introduced in this paper could be used to study how athletes organize their thoughts about body movements, how writers organize their thoughts about characters or how painters think about color, form and space.

The UCSB Current