Think of a trumpet playing a note, like this.

Then think of a cello playing the same note. Like this.

Your ear easily perceives the different between the two instruments, right? Now try to describe the difference in what you heard. Even at the same length, pitch and volume, the notes sound different. But what words do you use? The trumpet sounds more … trumpety?

That question of timbre — or the voices or characteristics of music — was the focus of a recent night in La Jolla. Preeminent music-and-brain neuroscientist Ani Patel, who’s a senior fellow at Neurosciences Institute, teamed up with cellist Ronald Thomas, who plays annually with local music organization Mainly Mozart. The pair explored the questions of timbre and musical expression, and the way our brains perceive it.

Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz / Courtesy of Mainly Mozart

Patel walked through a bunch of the scientific studies about what parts of our brain show movement when we hear music, and said scientists are testing to see whether there’s crossover between perceiving human emotion in someone speaking and the emotion inherent in music.

Thomas, the cellist, played Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” in a couple of different ways to demonstrate how adding vibrato and volume could warm up the sound. In the lobby beforehand, Mainly Mozart plunked acclaimed pianist Stephen Prutsman at an electric keyboard and UC San Diego scientists hooked him up to a brain imaging system — that’s what pictured in the photo at the top. It was an interesting night, and Mainly Mozart’s planning to do more of these pairings of neuroscientists and musicians next year.

There was one thing I’ve not been able to stop thinking about since that night: The evolution of hearing. Patel asked: How did we, with roots as fish and nocturnal “furballs,” as he called them, develop the super-specific, honed ability to hear? Not just feel vibrations in our bodies but actually perceive sound in ears? He pointed to a 1990 essay by the scientist Stephen Jay Gould that traces the migration of bones from the jaw to form a very basic ear.

Patel traced a really interesting question from that evolutionary history. Perhaps our ability to discern differences in sounds — like the trumpet and cello — comes from those early days when, in the dark of night, early mammals needed to distinguish between the kinds of bugs they wanted to eat.

I loved pondering those little furballs evolving to give us that potential for musical enjoyment later.

We live in San Diego, where some excellent science happens and where some excellent art happens and where, like in that presentation, the two spheres occasionally overlap.

We’ve spent a lot of time exploring this intersection, but we’ve never rounded up all of our music-and-the-brain coverage in one place.

Here’s a guide to some of the interesting things San Diego scientists and musicians are exploring:

• We recently looked in-depth at a new scientific study to explore how the brain changes in the first five years of playing an instrument and how it might compare to practicing karate.

Until a few decades ago, consensus held that our brains were not capable of changing much after a critical period in childhood. Now scientists know human brains change throughout life. They have a name — brain plasticity — to describe how experiences can change structures within the brain or the entire brain itself.

Finding out what experiences do what in the brain could upend some long-held education traditions. A kid struggling in math could be enrolled in music to strengthen the weak spots in her brain, rather than sit through times tables sessions after school.

• An acoustic guitarist’s career was transformed by a neurological disease that had crippled the careers of other musicians.

The disease threatened to halt (Billy) McLaughlin’s ability to play music, but he fought back. The finger-style guitar player relearned the intricate chords, rhythms and hand positions he was known for with his left hand. Now says he’s playing at the same level — and with more passion — than he did before his disease.

• A packed house at the Neurosciences Institute last year engaged the crowd’s brains in the questions: What is the beat? And how does the brain perceive it? Our TV story had more from the three widely respected local scholars in neuroscience, including Patel and his colleague John Iversen, and percussion. And the organizers posted the entire conversation.

• Patel and another researcher using music to study how the brain works turned to our reporter, Claire Trageser, for help a few years ago, hoping she had an elusive and unusual trait: An innate lack of rhythm.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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