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“The Science of Opera”, How Is It That Music “Moves” Us? (Video)


Stephen Fry asks scientists to show us how music works in our bodies.

The actor Stephen Fry concocted “The Science of the Opera” as an experiment to explore what happens to the body when we listen to moving music. For this experiment he asked comedian Alan Davis, who was a an opera “virgin”, and a group of researchers from University College London (UCL), to collectively discuss what happens physiologically when we listen to a passionate opera like Simon Boccangera by Verdi.

Rye and Davies attended the wonderful Royal Opera House while connected to several sensors that measured their breathing, sweat, heartbeat, and “several other emotional responses”. The results were fascinating. Firstly, one of the researching neurobiologists, Michael Trimble, informs us that “music is different to any other type of art”. For example, ninety percent of people admit to having been moved to tears by music, while only five percent can say the same thing about painting, sculpture or architecture. And, additionally, we should probably agree with these results, since we can confirm by the autonomous responses of the Fry’s and Davis’ nervous systems, which were moved beyond the conscious control of their emotions by the power of music (and the story).

Steven Fry

To be fully informed you can watch the show, which as well as being informative and a way to expand our appreciation of music, is truly enjoyable due to the participants’ sense of humour. The sensors attached to their bodies are a type of window into their automatic activities, and they tell us an entire extravagant and moving narrative of that which happens as they experience Verdi’s absorbing piece. As if these devices were telling us about the opera they watched. One of the phenomena that was recorded was how synchronising of both their heartbeats, suggesting that perhaps all the hearts at the Royal Opera House where beating as one. This had been recorded before, for example, with chorus singers, who do not only harmonise, but also synchronise their hearts as they sing. This result is a physiological epiphany of sorts of what music can do to us, as a group.


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