Expectations – that is the first audible word on this bit from a video made at the World Science Festival in 2009, which I’ve shared with readers several times in the past. It’s a video which continues to amaze me. As you’ll see, the brain manages our expectations in all kinds of surprising ways:
Clearly Bobby McFerrin is a gifted teacher, a supremely talented musician, and a creative thinker on all fronts. The pentatonic scale that he is teaching to this audience (of scientists presumably, rather than musicians) is a universal building block for folk music around the world. The music we would likely consider most comfortable to sing is often based on a pentatonic scale – that is, a series of intervals equivalent to the five black notes on the piano. For instance, you could play Amazing grace, how sweet the sound or Sometimes I feel like a motherless child almost entirely on only the piano’s black keys.
I would never have guessed that McFerrin could so easily manage expectations and lead the audience members to unknowingly sing a pentatonic melody. To see the brain process a musical concept like this right in front of my eyes was fascinating and I am awed by the continuing revelations through scientific study of how wonderfully we are made. So wonderfully, in fact, that our brains seem to be hard-wired for music, thanks be to God!
This all came to mind this past Sunday when someone commented on an anthem setting sung that morning of the hymn What wondrous love is this, out of that marvelous early American resource of religious song, The Sacred Harp. We talked about the strength of that tune, and the rootedness of music which emerges from any folk tradition, and I was reminded of McFerrin’s dance through the pentatonic scale.
If you play the piano even a little, you can begin the tune on A-flat and play the whole of What wondrous love on the black notes (with one exception…your ear will tell you what to do). The sound is not exactly minor, but it’s certainly not a major key either. The tune expresses the expansive, open quality we often associate with American music, with its plain rhythms and its call to be harmonized with open fifths which refuse to anchor the listener in either sadness or happiness, but simply in strength. The text incorporates three simple expressions of faith – wonder, song and the timelessness of God’s love.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside his crown for my soul.
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme I will sing.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.
Expectations, at heart, are simply strong beliefs, and in that spirit my expectations include a willingness to live into the belief that God has lovingly designed us for wonder and song.