Bobby McFerrin hacks your brain with the pentatonic scale

Marilyn sez, "Bobby McFerrin uses the pentatonic scale and an audience's expectations to demonstrate neural programming at the World Science Festival 2009"

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale (Thanks, Marilyn!)


  1. That’s the really nice thing about certain pentatonic scales (like the black notes on the piano) — not only do they sound Chinese as you glide up and down, they also sound harmonious in any order and combination.

  2. That was wonderful. That made my day. I especially liked the part where he jumped his legs apart to I and III simultaneously, and the audience responded accordingly.

    I’d love to see the subsequent discussion. Do all audiences do this because they’ve been acculturated to do so, or is there a way that our brains are wired to “think pentatonic”?

  3. Bobby McFerrin: “I shall CONTROL YOUR MIND!!!11muahahahahahahahahaha…..

    …to make a pleasant little bit of music. Right-o!”

  4. And despite his brilliance, when all is said and done, future generations will only remember him for the don’t worry be happy song.


  5. @pantograph

    I, for one, will remember him as one of the few undeniably amazing artists that my mother listens to. Don’t tell her I said that. :D

  6. it’s the only scale that exists in all cultures, and the oldest one we can confirm.

    And all should hear Bobby McFerrin & Chick Corea’s album Play

  7. This may win me the Shallowest Comment Award, but he’s also the hottest 59-year-old I’ve ever seen. And I’m a happily married straight guy!

  8. @torley

    They also sound Celtic. Check out “The Chieftains in China” to hear an Irish folk band playing with Chinese traditional artists for a very receptive Chinese audience.

  9. i remember seeing him late at night on pbs, roughly 12 years ago, when he conducted an improvised acapella orchestra/choir. i was probably 14 or 15, and i became so engrossed that when it ended it felt like waking from a dream. unforunately, this was before much info was available on teh internets (pine browser!!!) and i forgot his name, so i didn’t find the corresponding album until many years later.

    the point is, i loooove bobby mcferrin and want to have his babies (if that were possible).

    now, if i could only convince myself to get a comp with enough cpu to handle vimeo . . .

    anyone know how to watch vimeo on XBMC?

  10. I saw Bobby do this in Wheaton, IL last winter. It’s really amazing some of the stunts he pulls.

  11. The people who go out in the real world and do creative things with groups of people have a superior, and innate, understanding of human behaviour than anyone sitting behind a one-way mirror or poring over textbooks. The detached and unnatural circumstances placed on sociological experimentation by an overworked and misapplied notion of scientific rigor that works well with inanimate objects induces taints and side effects — something like a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of human behaviour. Compare the incredible results of the Stanford Prison experiment to today’s sociological experiments and you should see the problem.

  12. @pantograph, I agree with the *sigh*, HOWEVER what’s most important is HE WILL BE REMEMBERED.

    Can anyone explain (on an elementary school level), “WHY” this is universally known?

    I’m assuming by that statement, if you found a “lost tribe” in the Rain Forrest in which they’ve never seen/heard music (re)played, they’d find it a “pleasing sound”? Right?

    Why is that? I’m guessing obviously generations of genetics.

    However, from an “Evolutionary” perspective, (ie. the “Neuro Science”)–why is it important to know/find pleasing this scale?

    There’s GOTTA BE a evolutionary/biological/Genetic reason, or it would not be “universal”, Right?

    I have ZERO Music knowledge, but found this fascinating as to the “why” this is universal.

  13. VERY COOL!

    Here’s something cool (I just found out by accident).

    While watching this, (set an alarm, make a cell phone go off, etc.) Mine coincidently was my dog barking.

    However, do something to INTENTIONALLY break the pleasing sound, and gauge how much more annoying that is to you (vs. than when your cell phone normally rings, etc).

    Will warn you, it’s a STRANGE irritating feeling and I had to watch the video 2x to “get back into sync” if you will.

  14. What’s the copyright situation on this?

    Could you use this for, say, a dance performance?

  15. pattern recognition is driven by evolutionary selection since only those capable of learning by near hits reproduce. Pattern equals predictability.
    Binding time and being bound by time. Pleaseing patterns return to predictable points (usually starting).

  16. That was beautiful. Early in the piece, when the audience supplied the third note by instinct, I got a chill of wonder. As the piece grew more complex and the audience kept hitting their notes, my surprise leveled off but my enjoyment kept growing. Seeing the instinctive nature of the scale demonstrated was one kind of pleasure. Simply hearing that lovely communal unison voice was another.

    Interesting that an auditorium full of strangers can spontaneously form something so fine, not from practice or because they have been carefully selected, but just because they are people. A small amount of a certain kind of leadership was all it took to bring forth that happy averaging of voices to produce music, and to make each contributor a good singer.

  17. Interesting that an auditorium full of strangers can spontaneously form something so fine, not from practice or because they have been carefully selected, but just because they are people.

    We should have elected Bobby Ferrin in 2000.

  18. @ anonymous #19
    The 12-tone scale is beautiful to our ears for one reason only- that is, the wavelengths of each tone have nice whole number ratios. An octave, all 12 notes, has a 2:1 ratio. A perfect 5th, 7 steps, has a 3:2 ratio. It follows that a perfect fourth (5 steps) has a ratio of 4:3.

    Now the pentatonic scale is simply the easiest ratios you can find inside the 12-tone scale. the central note here, one that you can tell he likes to end on, is the note that people in this thread have assigned the name II.
    A fifth above that is the note he introduced fourth, a fifth above that is the note he introduced third, the fifth below II is the note he let the audience figure out, the fifth note introduced, and a fifth below that is the first note he gave.
    It’s the nicest whole number ratios you can make in five notes, which is why it shows up everywhere. So the genetic reason you are searching for is not some evolutionary reason to use the particular scale, but rather an appreciation for the underlying math of music that has been given to us through evolution.
    As to why we subconsciously enjoy simple whole number ratios in things that we hear, I can’t provide the evolutionary reason for that.

  19. to #19 anonymous…maybe it is universal because it is pleasant, and there is no evolutionary benefit to it whatsoever. How and why a cat purrs are not fully understood (if at all…even the study that says cats manipulate us with their purring: It works because cats’ purrs are pleasant to human ears)

    Maybe God put the ability to find pleasant things into the human senses on purpose, because He desires us to find pleasure in the creation, including in ourselves. And evolution didn’t cause the development of what seems pleasant to us, because God delights in us and wants us to delight in Him and His creation.

  20. This is lovely and quite amusing, and I am definitely a fan of Bobby McFerrin, but I just had to put in my two cents. I’m a Music Theorist (in training – I’m in graduate school at the moment) and I have dabbled in Ethnomusicology, just so you understand the perspective I’m coming from.

    To some extent this is just a trick in two parts. The first part is the trick that Bobby McFerrin plays on the audience to get them to successfully sing a Pentatonic scale. The second part seems to be the inferences Bobby makes to the audience about his successful experiment and the implications it has on the nature of the pentatonic scale.

    The first trick can be explained thus: While the audience is busy singing 1, 2, 3, & 6 scale degrees according to where Bobby is jumping around on the stage, he is singing (probably improvising) a little tune in the Pentatonic scale. In that way he’s kind of priming the audience to think and audiate in that particular pitch collection. The idea of thinking or audiating in a certain collection of pitches is an idea that goes way back to the origins of Western music (NB: Medieval church modes like Mixolydian, Phrygian, etc.), so this isn’t all that ridiculous in any way. Thus, when Bobby continues moving up or down across the stage, the audience just keeps moving up and down the pentatonic collection, because he made them think about it while he was singing. The pentatonic collection would be quite accessible to a modern audience, as it is used very frequently in certain forms in much of our modern popular music. It is part of our collective cultural musical consciousness, if you will.

    After the completion of the experiment, Bobby uses the audience’s amazement at their ability to “mindlessly” sing along to a scale he somehow “accessed from the deep recesses of their brains” to promote the idea that the Pentatonic scale is somehow universal to the human experience. While I would certainly argue that his crowd understood the Pentatonic scale because of their generally shared cultural background, I would shudder at the notion that their understanding of the scale was “mysterious,” or worse, genetic. The idea that there exists some universality to the way people in disparate cultures create music is (dare I say it?) frighteningly ethnocentric. Without going into any real depth, I can say that, in learning what I have about Ethnomusicology, there are many cultures around the world that conceive of and perform music entirely differently than we do in the western realm. For example I remember learning about a small group of people living in a remote part of Indonesia that was discovered by the west early in the 20th Century. They shocked their western discoverers by performing microtonal music in their ceremonial gatherings (microtonality is the use of pitches between the half-steps defined by western musical standards). Micrtonality is not only very far from the Pentatonic collection in this sense, but also from the western musical aesthetic altogether (particularly that of the early 20th century).

    As I am nothing near a real Ethnomusicologist, I am sure I’m doing this argument a great disservice, and I’m sure someone with more background and experience than I have would present it more compellingly, but I hope my point came across well enough.

  21. One has to keep in mind how, for example, Western classical music has a set of “rules” about how harmony is supposed to work, such as, for a perfect cadence in a work, you are (optionally) set up with a IV chord which eventually migrates to a V chord, and then the expectation is that there is a I chord to end. Even more modern music often works with elements of these “rules” embedded into it.

    As the historical precedent for the pentatonic scale has already been established above, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that learned anticipation assists in an unaware audience extrapolating notes — given a sequence 1, 3, 5, it’s equally likely for the next number in the sequence to be 42 as well as 7, but since the first three numbers in the sequence are recognizable, we match it with an existing pattern.

  22. To Ozzz (#28);

    I don’t think he’s trying to make the point that it’s at all mystical or even genetic. I think the point (and part of the title of the conference section) is neural programming. Therefore, if he sets up the first few notes of the scale and lets the audience know where to go, they’ll follow without too much prompting or without audience members having specific previous knowledge of a pentatonic scale.

    It’s math and pattern recognition. Which is pretty cool.

  23. This reminds me of a little singing lesson that Ms. Leslie Feist gave last summer:


    As for the whole nature vs nurture debate, has anyone tried to see if a subject born profoundly deaf, and subsequently fitted with a cochlear implant can predict a pentatonic scale?

    It’s a bit like every human on earth knows what red is. There have been studies on subjects who have had their sight returned to them after being blind all their lives, and it takes a great deal of rehab to teach them the ABC’s of perception that the rest of us do effortlessly.

  24. did Bobby just demonstrate how we can really come together as human beings and have fun. You gotta love this guy. I do.

  25. To anonymous #32 – I agree with the idea that the experiment deals somewhat with pattern and recognition, but I think it’s much more culturally influenced than you seem to say. Obviously the average person doesn’t know what a pentatonic scale is called, but I’m sure that most people could do what the audience in the video does because they know what a pentatonic scale sounds like (because they’re exposed to it everywhere). In that way, it’s not at all completely just based on patterning, but rather on a cultural background shared by the whole audience.

    My other remarks were more in reference to what Bobby says at the end of the video about “this is what happens everywhere I do this!” and “that’s the pentatonic scale for you” (I’m loosely quoting).

  26. As a poor singer myself, I keep wondering if I’d be a good audience for him! Is this audience made by people somehow related to music? They seem so tuned! Or is it an effect of the average tune of everyone that makes it sound like perfect notes? Nevertheless, it’s amazing!

  27. It could be brilliant or it could also be pure entertainment.

    The leading voices sound a bit too trained: their pitch and timing is excellent. So my guess is that there are shills in the audience. Simple and effective and deceptive, but not brilliant.

  28. @29 O777777:

    I would shudder at the notion that their understanding of the scale was “mysterious,” or worse, genetic.

    Thank you! That’s what I was thinking, only I couldn’t have said it anywhere near as elegantly and thoroughly. It was cute, and anything participatory led by Bobby McFerrin will automatically be uplifting, but there was no mystery here, for pete’s sake.

  29. Like OZZZZZZ, I feel the need to justify my (otherwise useless) Music Theory Ph.D. and chime in here! I love Bobby McFerrin and enjoyed watching the vid, but I think it’s important that we be cautious about claiming cross-cultural universality with regards to the pentatonic scale.

    Historically, musicologists have been enamored with the idea, and the number of musical cultures and traditions that seem to share this scale is certainly quite large. But the question is far from being definitively answered. I’d venture to say that even if McFerrin’s trick seems to succeed every time, there are almost certainly some people/cultures for whom it wouldn’t work.

    Part of the reason I’m saying this has to do with how these different cultures experience the pentatonic scale. What one culture hears as a resting point within the scale, for example, another might not. The relative weight–if we can call it that–of the different scale degrees in this sense, has subtle but definite ramifications on the precise tuning of each variation of the scale. Anonymous #27 pointed out the relevance of simple-ratio pitch relations. Perfect fifths almost certainly figure into the construction of any pentatonic scale (and it seems likely that the simple-ratio frequencies of two vibrating bodies is at least partly responsible for this) but decisions as to which fifths are made perfect will affect the overall tuning.

    What I’m proposing is that the universality of the pentatonic scale is something of an illusion. Different cultures have slightly (but, again, definitively) different variations of the pentatonic scale. These subtleties become lost in the wash of the audience/chorus, but that doesn’t make the approximation a universal.

    I’d say that if we’re seeking human-musical universalities, the place to look would be individual intervals (the “distance” between two pitches) themselves. But even there, our ears have the remarkable ability to compensate for subtle irregularities and approximations. A perfect fifth played by an equal-tempered piano (the modern standard) is often quite different from one played by a violinist. Intervals vary even from one violinist to the next. And yet, we won’t necessarily hear this as being out of tune.

    In that sense, our ability to adapt to different musical situations is the real universal. I like OZZZZZZ’s proposal that the audiences are simply becoming entrained to the patterns that McFerrin is setting up. For me, that’s the coolest part about our musical selves and why we’re able to enjoy and be affected by so many unfamiliar musics!

  30. The big moment in this presentation is when Bobby goes up to the 3rd degree of the scale. The question is, ‘will the people sing a major 3rd above the root, or the minor 3rd?’ This audience seemed to pick the major 3rd.

    I would bet, however, that if you set the mood for a minor 3rd, the audience would pick that over the mjr 3rd. Here he is, a friendly, nice guy, bouncing up and down, doing some fun, clean entertainment. That would go with the associations we have of the mjr 3rd.

    However, if he had presented the scale with any some darker overtones, i suspect that many, in the audience would have gone with the minor 3rd. For example, had he been more angry, sad, ominous, or what-have-you, the result would have been different.

  31. #37 said it best. All of this sound and glory could seriously be the work of the oldest shill trick in the business. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities.

  32. Is it me, or does it end up sounding more like the top hexachord of a major scale + 1 lower note than a pentatonic scale? Maybe THAT’S the sound the audience had in it’s ear? Especially since he spaced the jumps to correspond to a major scale on a piano…

  33. #42 – He starts on a minor third – C#, (of A# pentatonic minor which is actually the second note of the scale) so with that and the next note, he has defined the tonality of the scale right at the start – what the audience guesses is E#, a fifth (and fourth note of the scale) – seems a reasonable place to resolve to. And once that is done everyone can easily follow along with a scale they have heard in music throughout their lives.

    Pleasing, but not mind-bogglingly impressive – he only gets the audience to guess the next note above or below his current one, no leaping two notes ahead – that would have been good.

    (I’m not a music theorist, so take those note and whatnot with a pinch of salt.)

  34. Anonymouseses @ #36 #37:

    I am also a poor singer. I know I sing off-key, therefore I don’t sing in public.

    I suspect that if we had a shot of the audience in this clip, you would see that people like me would not participate, and those misguided souls who think they can sing would be drowned out by the majority who can.

    P.S. I am aware that traditionally Anonymous is an adjective and should not be pluralised in English.

    However I tripped over this:

    That discusses how to pluralize anonymous when used as a noun.

  35. #42 posted by Anonymous, August 1, 2009 10:26 PM
    “The big moment in this presentation is when Bobby goes up to the 3rd degree of the scale. The question is, ‘will the people sing a major 3rd above the root, or the minor 3rd?’ This audience seemed to pick the major 3rd.

    I would bet, however, that if you set the mood for a minor 3rd, the audience would pick that over the mjr 3rd. Here he is, a friendly, nice guy, bouncing up and down, doing some fun, clean entertainment. That would go with the associations we have of the mjr 3rd.

    However, if he had presented the scale with any some darker overtones, i suspect that many, in the audience would have gone with the minor 3rd. For example, had he been more angry, sad, ominous, or what-have-you, the result would have been different.”

    I couldn’t agree more to this. If it were some guy, in a black shit, black pants, weird haircut, and stood there pointing while making the sounds, with a deep voice, it would have been Minor 3rd.

    This is called Ethos – the basic knowledge of looking the part to deliver. Noticed he started in the Major 3rd at a higher octave too… promoting high pitches in high steps, not half steps.

  36. Hardwired. Creationists hate this stuff. It annoyed me as well, as 20 years ago I was a firm 95% nurture person, nowadays, 35%. Slowly the scale slides.

    The tones people use to soothe crying babies reflect the pentatonic – it’s very deep, very hardwired, primal brain stuff.

    If you consider it for 2 secs, you might actually say how obvious it really is.

    And Bobby McFerrin – read up, he’s acknowledged as a total musical genius. He’s in my pantheon.

  37. I’d say the bigger question is…Why music at all? There is a great book on all this called YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC. The author discusses the reasons we enjoy music across all cultures. He covers some fascinating things.

    For instance, he did a study with college kids, asking them to participate in a test. They listened to various songs (Michael Jackson – Billy Jean I believe, and others). What was interesting was that these people who had no musical training, could sing the song back with the correct tempo, in the correct key, and include all the nuances of the performances.

    It seems we innately “record” music and can repeat what we hear, even if we claim that we cannot sing a note. Take the Happy Birthday song…if someone starts it, we all follow along with them, in the key they are in…with all the proper notes and phrasing. Yet many claim they cannot sing…everyone can sing.

    He also discussed the link between music and memory…it’s really great stuff and very interesting.

    His conclusion (and sorry if I garble it) is that music is tied to our ancient instincts…the fight/flee aspect of our ancestors brains. There’s alot more to it, but I’d highly recommend picking it up…

  38. There is something indescribably beautiful in the emergent properties of this demonstration. I found myself crying uncontrollably as I watched it. Has anyone else had a similar reaction, or am I an emotionally-volatile freak?

    To Anonymous #38: evolution is not teleological. That’s the whole point.

    1. I did…i cried as I watched it the 1st 2nd and up till the 5th time…I can watch it now with out crying but it makes me very happy

  39. As a side note, if you want to hear something REALLY telling about singing in large groups, listen through the video to the point where Bobby is singing along to the notes he’s making the audience sing and then move the slider bar back to the point where he’s teaching the audience the pitches at the beginning! Everyone fell flat by almost a half-step!

    That’s happened in almost every unaccompanied chorus I’ve ever been in…

    Also, to Andremount #41 – Thanks for explaining the details of situation thoroughly and for adding in your expertise!

  40. @Anonymous #27, the reason the 12-tone scale is beautiful to our ears is that people have fiddled with it for centuries to make it that way.

    The ratios in a scale don’t add, they multiply. This means that dividing an octave (with a 2:1 ratio) into 12 equal pieces results in a semitone ratio which is the twelfth root of two – an irrational number – so that all intervals except unison and octave are to some extent dissonant.

    Tempering this to something that sounds good in a variety of commonly-used keys is the real trick in tuning theory and practice.

  41. while on instinct and music; been reading/listening about therapy harp. When the great keyboard cat in the sky finally plays YOU off, what do you think you would like to hear as the final pattern of this mortal coil?

  42. The harmonic series introduced first the octave, then the fifth, then the fourth, then a kind of major third, and a kind of minor third, (another third) and then a major second. these are the intervals within a pentatonic scale – at the demi-octave, it’s only the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, the intervals introduced after the 5th. To say that these intervals are somehow more fundamental to the human brain is hard to back up, necessarily. The question being tackled right now is : how much is cultural and how much is innate?
    Cognition demonstrates again and again that pitch familiarity is learned. The anhemitonic pentatonic scale (the one demonstrated in this video), however, is prevalent throughout the music of pretty much all cultures, in some form or another, with varying degrees of emphasis, so this suggests some sort of inherent-ness. For some reason, when we’re growing up, the first easiest interval to learn is the falling minor third, often taught as “Sol-Mi” or “5-3”, which an integral part of this pentatonic scale. It’s the sound most mothers use to call their children.
    Again, we have no idea if there is some natural inherentness to the pitches, or if it is all cultural acquisition, ie: a learned inherentness.

  43. @Takuan #57:

    To quote Poi Dog Pondering: “If I should die in a car wreck, May I have Van Morrison in my tape deck”

  44. let me guess

    We were born before the wind
    Also younger than the sun
    Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
    Hark, now hear the sailors cry
    Smell the sea and feel the sky
    Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

    And when that fog horn blows I will be coming home
    And when that fog horn blows I want to hear it
    I don’t have to fear it
    I want to rock your gypsy soul
    Just like way back in the days of old
    Then magnificently we will float into the mystic
    And when that fog horn blows you know I will be coming home
    And when thst fog horn whistle blows I got to hear it
    I don’t have to fear it
    I want to rock your gypsy soul
    Just like way back in the days of old
    And together we will float into the mystic
    Come on girl…

  45. Excellent choice, Takuan! That would suit me just fine.

    Learethak, thanks for the reference. That’s going on my Netflix queue too.

  46. Anonymous said

    So my guess is that there are shills in the audience. Simple and effective and deceptive, but not brilliant.

    much like… um.. yourself?

  47. shills? I missed that. A man of McFerrin’s stature, talent and demonstrated character does not have to resort to “shills”. You sir, are an Anonymous git.

  48. Evolution is not teleological, but every description of evolution is. Birds have wings “so that” they can fly. Flowers develop certain way “in order to” get the most effect from pollinators.

  49. Maybe 15 yrs or so ago, I was standing next to a phone booth in Columbus Square in Manhattan, when a Black guy with dreads with a guitar carrying case over his shoulder asked me for a light. I gave him one and he lit a joint and thanked me and walked off. A few days or so later I saw an add on a bus about how Bobby Mcferrin was conducting ( i think) at Lincoln center, and recognized the photo. So, I basically lit a joint for Bobby McFerrin!

  50. Re: Ozz sez “As a side note, […] Everyone fell flat by almost a half-step!”

    Thank you. To me, half the “wonder and awe” of this whole thing is in the audience being able to kinda approximately predict the pentatonic scale with a bunch of clues. There is some sort of bias in the prediction of the scale.

    The other half of the awe and wonder is how everyone who views the video further inserts even more bias into the listening act — kinda approximately telling themselves what they’re hearing.

    There’s just as much bias going into an audience predicting pentatonic scale as there is in getting us BoingBoing commenters to believe we heard some perfect notes.

    The layers of perception bias here are even more fascinating than just the video.

  51. Lots of tunes are based on the pentatonic scale. Amazing Grace and What’s Going On are the first two that come to my mind.

  52. #46 #He starts on a minor third – C#, (of A# pentatonic minor which is actually the second note of the scale)

    If you start a Minor Pentatonic from the second note it becomes a Major Pentatonic, or more universally, a Natural Minor (Aeolian) scale started from the III will give a Major (Ionian) scale.

    Today’s music theory is full of oversimplifications followed by ugly complications to get around the simplifications, and there’s huge potential for disagreement in what scales should be doing if you put a bunch of musicians from different traditions in the same room. However by not having any of the the contentious semitone steps, a pentatonic scale has the wonderful property of almost never being wrong no matter what kind of musical chaos is going on.

  53. I think the effects of the subset of people in the crowd who are musicians is very significant – I suspect that only a small minority “knew” precisely what tone to sing – the rest were following them. The interesting thing is how this “negotiation” happens so quickly amongst a large group of people.

  54. @#27

    Except that the ratios aren’t whole numbers. They can’t be, since no matter which tone you start at, the octave above is 2x the frequency. Rather, the frequency ratio of adjacent semitones is the twelfth root of two.

  55. Comment conversations which accrue an air of superfluous tension or those which completely dilute the integrity of the comment bank really take away from the potential learning experience and enjoyment of the serendipitous wonders to be found by surfing and/or stumbling. I, amongst a myriad of others, have had innumerable experiences dampened if not ruined by the rants of the elitists online who feel it necessary to prove their mettle as intellectuals to the world by posting messages which boil down to: “You’re wrong because this and I’m right because Algernon Wycliffe said such and such in this publication…so nah! :P”
    I have found that many things are better experienced without finding out how they “tick”. Most of the viewers of this, and other such articles, are not likely to care about the inner workings of the mind, genetics, et cetera. They will enjoy it and stumble on. Those who are curious and want to learn more about it may carry out personal research. If one enters a site and really wants to inform and aid those who are curious, they might consider leaving a comment similar to this:
    “If this grabbed your attention you can learn more about at .”

    Moving on, I enjoyed this display of Mr. McFerrin’s experiment. It geared me to think about many things which I will now read up on. Thank you for sharing, Cory Doctorow.

  56. Re: Suggestions of Shills.

    I stand in gobsmacked awe of those commenters who presume to call out McFerrin for using shills. Not because it’s demeaning, but because it would make NO DAMN DIFFERENCE! To think that it would is to totally, utterly, absolutely miss the point. It is singularly obtuse.

    This demo is precisely the sort of effect than cannot be shilled. Shills or no shills, what is happening is the same: each audience member is choosing a note to sing based on what they initially guess and subsequently hear. The process by which the (roughly) correct note arises is what’s wonderful, and that process would be unaffected by the presence of a few shills who sing on key. Individuals with good pitch will be present in any decent-sized crowd anyway. People’s SENSE of what pitch is correct is the cool part. A few shills singing the correct note would not help anyone make the correct choice–everyone could just as easily choose to IGNORE the shills, UNLESS they already have a sense of the right pitch, which is THE WHOLE DAMN POINT!!!!

    Shill accusers: you FAIL. Horribly. Miserably. Totally.

    (Not to mention, it IS insulting to McFerrin, and anybody with a functioning mind.)

  57. There is an interesting book by the composer/theorist Paul Hindemith (I forget the title) all about the structure of overtone series and their mathematical ratios.

  58. Guess what! Music (to a degree) IS universal.

    Glorified performances may have come before civilization, rather than vice versa, against what many pop-media critics may surmise. Utilizing MRI techniques to analyze human brain reactions to sound, researchers “presented three types of stimuli: a complex stimulus consisting the 4th through 7th harmonics of a fundamental of 250 Hz, a pure tone of 250 Hz and a pure tone of 1000 Hz (5). They found that [the locus of response to the harmonic series was at the same point as the locus for responses to the fundamental frequency of 250 Hz]. However, the locus for responses to 1000 Hz was at a different site. The authors concluded that the frequency map of the human auditory cortex [is actually a map of pitch].” [Weinberger; emphasis added] That has been apparent with birds, cats, and monkeys also; “sacred” geometry, as it were, is truly something to revere in every aspect of both organic and inorganic forms of energy.

    Moreover, just assuming, from a specifically un-globalized culture’s usage of ‘off-key’ musical scales, that their people would not recognize the inherent nature of rational musical tonality, is quite narrow. People in some cultures (like the modern highland Maya) do not use their true personalities in public, for example. They hide them for protection — from each other. Some African peoples hide knowledge of concepts or things that their own group may be unaware of — for prestige. Others may wish to make music more chaotic in tuning (like Native American flutes, which are not traditionally tuned similarly or with particular frequencies/intervals in mind) in order to better represent, say, the unpredictable wind.

    “If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have a key to the universe.”

  59. I was at the Lionel Hampton Jazz fest and he did this in a Kibbie Dome packed with music nerds of all ages. It was a life changing experience- I never felt more connected to humanity then at that show.

  60. The audience is impressive in its ability to respond musically to his visual clues…I love the ease and fun with which he approaches “conducting”.

  61. I would probably be totally horrible at something like this. I’ve been told I’m tone deaf (though never tested for it).

  62. how fun and interesting=can’t believe some are not happy with just enjoying the simplicity of it all, but find it necessary to write a complete thesis about the clip- it’s human nature proven over and over and the audience is not rehearsed, it’s expect the unexpected
    relax folks, enjoy life for a change

  63. I remember being at a concert of his in S.F. 23 yrs. ago. If hearing/seeing him live wasn’t enough, he invited a group of us onstage to vocalize with him. Being in the presence of genius…undescribable!

  64. remarkable,
    I am a musician who plays Bolivian folk music also known as andean music which is based on pentatonic scale also,
    native musicians play this sacred and beautiful melodies some times in large groups of 30 40 100 or so, they play dancing in a happy and peacefull spirit in circles with the drummer and some high pich percission instruments in the center, but the interesting part is that the melody is played sharing in couples and as you play and dance in circles you feel this effect o stereophony while you hear the melody dancing in your ears from left to right too, for me it´s like if they were balancing your brain and connecting with your inner been,… :)
    I´m glad for the music that supports the universe,

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