Sound At The Science Museum

I went along to the Science Museum Lates night because it was exploring the science behind music. I was imagining exhibits about the power of sound waves, or perhaps some music, and maybe some machines. What I got instead was a metaphorical punch in the heart courtesy of a remarkable man called Professor Nigel Osbourne, Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. You can see a YouTube clip of him talking here and here.

The billing in the programme looked cool: ‘Music, Neuroscience and the Real World’ and I hustled Robbie and Petra from Live Magazine, who’d come down to cover it, down to the ground floor so we made sure we got in. We were led down to the basement and into a room with round primary-coloured cushions on the floor and a jolly looking chap standing at the front. He used the microphone to tell us he didn’t want to use the microphone, putting it one side with a comment about not wanting or needing a ‘digital advantage’ and began a fascinating, moving half an hour which we heard about children he’d worked with in war-torn Sarajevo, in northern Uganda, in the world’s most densely populated place, Balata camp in Palestine, and along a disputed border of Thailand and Myanmar.

He interspersed stories about these traumatised children with facts about how trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder have a physiological effect on breathing, heart-rate and movement – and how music can counter these negative effects. It can alter the heart-rate, and slow the over-charged heartbeat of a traumatised person. Singing exercises the lungs (you use 100% of the lung capacity when you’re singing, as compared to 60% when exercising hard) negating the shallow, irregular breathing of someone suffering from PTSD, and music can deal with the hyperactivity or lack of response that’s common in children suffering in this way. We’re hardwired for sound, he said, banging a cupboard. We respond to noise, react to it, get information from it. Music, he said, probably exists as a response to our need to move to sound.

The real choker was when he showed us some footage to reinforce what he’d been saying. In one clip we saw him singing songs to a primary school-age group of children with disabilities who usually spent most of the day beating each other up and thus spent the day in a specially padded room. One boy was sitting in the circle, just to the left of the Professor. He never vocalised, we were told and was sitting mute with a tambourine on his lap. But half way through the song he stood up, began banging the tambourine and started making sound; singing, really.

Music, he said, can’t heal anything, but it can assist in the process of healing: it can make healing possible. It can be an agent for social change. We know that… but it was wonderful to see some of the science behind it.

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