The musician Sting — yogi, tight pants aficionado, and once possessor of a ponytail — also appears to be a man who can get down with some science.
A paper published in the journal Neurocase details how the former Dune star was in Montreal for a concert and figured he’d meet neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. Levitin is the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, and Sting had just read it; being the pop star he is, he was granted a tour of Levitin’s lab.
Sting, it turns out, is a bigger nerd than you might expect: Not only did he want a tour of Levitin’s lab — an odd choice for a tourist in Montreal — but he also wanted to take a run through the fMRI machine. Levitin, as the author of a book on the brain on music, predictably jumped at the offer to profile the noggin of one of the world’s preeminent musicians.
So Levitin and his colleagues got Sting in the fMRI machine with the goal of examining the neural underpinnings of Sting’s music perception and cognition.
“I look at musicians like Sting and think, I’m never going to be able to do that,” Levitin gushed to New York Magazine. “By understanding how the brains of excellence work we’ll be in a better position to understand what kinds of training people need to help them achieve at higher and higher levels.”
The researchers asked Sting to imagine doing “creative activities” — painting, musical composition, the like — while listening to songs that crossed a variety of genres. His diverse playlist ranged from Britney Spears’s debut hit, “ … Baby One More Time” and Muzak’s take on “Blue Moon.”
The researchers found that Sting made significant creative connections in his head with certain genres of music: “Muzak and Top 100/Pop songs were far from all other musical styles in Mahalanobis distance (Euclidean representational space), whereas jazz, R&B, tango and rock were comparatively close,” the team wrote. “Closer inspection revealed principaled explanations for the similarity clusters found, based on key, tempo, motif, and orchestration.”
In other words, Sting’s brain — and perhaps those of other elite musicians — were especially juiced by complex creative thoughts when he was listening to certain types of music. Patterns emerged depending on the stimuli, evidence that listening and imagining music creates specific neural regions of the brain to ignite. By getting to watch Sting process music, researchers were able to see how an extremely creative mind works. In Sting’s case, that was jazz, R&B, tango, and rock — genres that also, noticeably, inform his personal musical style. (Spoiler: Sting, the guy who made the quintessential background song, does not like elevator music.)
Now, if only we could get “Fields of Gold” out of our head.