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Science & Environment

Sting's Brain Scan Reveals Clues About How The Musical Mind Works

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This next story is about what goes on inside the brain of a rock star.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's someone who knows about the topic - Daniel Levitin, cognitive neuroscientist.

DANIEL LEVITIN: I scan brains for a living.

SHAPIRO: Levitin teaches at McGill University in Montreal. He is author of "A Field Guide To Lies." And in 2006, he published the book "This Is Your Brain On Music." About a year after it came out, Levitin got a visit in his lab from one of the book's fans.

LEVITIN: Sting came to our lab.

CORNISH: Yes, Sting - English-born principal songwriter, singer and bassist for the band Police. Of course, he's a longtime solo performer. And after Sting read Levitin's book, he got a tour in the neuroscientist's lab.

LEVITIN: I asked if he might want to have his brain scanned at the same time, and he said sure.

SHAPIRO: Levitin tries to understand how the brain is organized, especially the musical brain. So he used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record Sting's brain activity while Sting listened to music. Among the tunes was one of Sting's own songs, "Moon Over Bourbon Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOON OVER BOURBON STREET")

STING: (Singing) Oh, you'll never see my shade or hear the sound of my feet while there's a moon over Bourbon Street.

CORNISH: And there were others, like "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the M.G.'s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREEN ONIONS")

LEVITIN: I don't think of those two songs as being particularly similar, but his brain did.

CORNISH: What Sting reacted to was what most people would not.

LEVITIN: Both are in a swing rhythm. They're both in the key of F-minor. They both have the same tempo of 132 beats per minute.

SHAPIRO: Levitin also tested Sting's brain on two songs that seemed dissimilar, like this Beatles song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Is there anybody going to listen to my story all about the girl who came to stay?

CORNISH: And this tango by Astor Piazzolla.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED ASTOR PIAZZOLLA SONG)

SHAPIRO: The scientists expected very different neurons to fire in the musician's brain.

LEVITIN: Instead, what we found was that his brain activity was quite similar.

CORNISH: Sting's brain heard a three-note pattern and other markers - something a non-musician might not pick up on.

LEVITIN: What this suggests is that his brain is extracting this latent information and keeping track of it.

SHAPIRO: Daniel Levitan says this helps us understand how expertise works in the brain. He has found some people, such as Sting, are born with certain talents, and then they nurture those talents to become experts.

CORNISH: Levitin's results were published this month in the journal Neurocase. And he says, if any other guest musicians would like their brains scanned, he's available. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.