PBS // 2009 // 50 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 21st, 2012
A journey of discovery into the mystery of music.
Trapped in the midst of the charming, laid-back documentary The Musical Brain is a genuinely horrifying side note. A scientist has been studying the hit songs of the past century, carefully examining what audiences find appealing. This scientist has determined that nearly every hit song fits neatly into one of sixty different "hit clusters." As such, the scientist believes he can use this knowledge to determine whether or not a song will be a hit. Kids, if you thought the top 40 material of the modern era sounded formulaic before, just wait until this guy teams up with the next Justin Bieber. It would be an incredibly cynical approach to creating music, but it would seem that such developments are just around the corner.
Still, most of the science offered in The Musical Brain is all about increasing our understanding of how music and the mind connect rather than finding ways to decrease musical imagination. The central figure is Dr. Daniel Levitan, a former musician and record producer who has spent many years attempting to understand how our mind interacts with music. Which types of music cause us to be more creative? What is our brain doing when we're in the process of creating music? At what age are we able to process certain musical patterns? These are just a few of the subjects the documentary taps into over the course of its all-too-brief 50 minutes.
Levitan was particularly eager to study the brain of "a master musician," so he recruited none other than Sting (hold your jokes, please) as a human guinea pig. While I've never really connected with much of Sting's music, the man comes across as an intelligent and thoughtful artist with an impressively diverse musical palette. We observe what happens in his brain as he listens to various types of music (his mind responds very negatively to a bit of cheesy elevator music) and later we get an opportunity to examine which parts of his brain are at work while he's composing a melody. It's fascinating stuff, though after a while Sting starts becoming a little unnerved by all of the data being thrown at him. "I'm not sure I want to know all of this," he confesses, fearing that too much knowledge about the mechanics of writing music could prevent him from being able to do so.
Honestly, the only frustrating thing about The Musical Brain is that there isn't nearly enough time to fully explore the compelling ideas it throws out. It's more of a conversation-starter than a full-blown conversation; feature-length documentaries could be made highlighting just one or two of the many notions which are explored. Still, it's a rather compelling 50-minute overview of a complex subject.
The DVD transfer is perfectly satisfactory, blending new footage, archival footage and talking head interviews (which include not only Sting but also Leslie Feist, Wyclef Jean, and Michael Bublé) and offering solid detail throughout. The Dolby 2.0 stereo track is only a bit disappointing during some of the brief song clips we're treated to throughout the documentary; otherwise it gets the job done nicely. There are no extras on the disc.
The Musical Brain is another winning PBS documentary which offers an engaging look at an intriguing subject. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 50 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated