Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
I’ve sung thousands of songs in my life, mostly in the forgiving company of family and friends. But, until a few years ago, I’d never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to do a solo performance of the Star-Spangled Banner in a major league ballpark.
When I first learned that the Washington Nationals had selected me to sing the national anthem before a home game with the New York Mets on May 24, 2016, I was thrilled. But then another response emerged: yes, that would be called fear. Not only would I be singing before my biggest audience ever, I would be taking on a song that’s extremely challenging for even the most accomplished performer.
The musician in me was particularly concerned about landing the anthem’s tricky high F note on “land of the free” without screeching or going flat. So, I tracked down a voice teacher who gave me a crash course about how to breathe properly, how to project, how to stay on pitch on a high note, and how to hit the national anthem out of the park. She suggested that a good way to train is to sing the entire song with each syllable replaced by “meow.” It sounds ridiculous, but it helped—try it sometime. And then I practiced, practiced, practiced. I think the preparation paid off, but watch the video to decide for yourself!
Three years later, the scientist in me remains fascinated by what goes on in the human brain when we listen to or perform music. The NIH has even partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to launch the Sound Health initiative to explore the role of music in health. A great many questions remain to be answered. For example, what is it that makes us enjoy singers who stay on pitch and cringe when we hear someone go sharp or flat? Why do some intervals sound pleasant and others sound grating? And, to push that line of inquiry even further, why do we tune into the pitch of people’s voices when they are speaking to help figure out if they are happy, sad, angry, and so on?
To understand more about the neuroscience of pitch, a research team, led by Bevil Conway of NIH’s National Eye Institute, used functional MRI imaging to study activity in the region of the brain involved in processing sound (the auditory cortex), both in humans and in our evolutionary relative, the macaque monkey . For purposes of the study, published recently in Nature Neuroscience, pitch was defined as the harmonic sounds that we hear when listening to music.
For humans and macaques, their auditory cortices lit up comparably in response to low- and high-frequency sound. But only humans responded selectively to harmonic tones, while the macaques reacted to toneless, white noise sounds spanning the same frequency range. Based on what they found in both humans and monkeys, the researchers suspect that macaques experience music and other sounds differently than humans. They also go on to suggest that the perception of pitch must have provided some kind of evolutionary advantage for our ancestors, and has therefore apparently shaped the basic organization of the human brain.
But enough about science and back to the ballpark! In front of 33,009 pitch-sensitive Homo sapiens, I managed to sing our national anthem without audible groaning from the crowd. What an honor it was! I pass along this memory to encourage each of you to test your own pitch this Independence Day. Let’s all celebrate the birth of our great nation. Have a happy Fourth!
 Divergence in the functional organization of human and macaque auditory cortex revealed by fMRI responses to harmonic tones. Norman-Haignere SV, Kanwisher N, McDermott JH, Conway BR. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]
Our brains appear uniquely tuned for musical pitch (National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke news release)
Bevil Conway (National Eye Institute/NIH)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Eye Institute; National Institute of Mental Health
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