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Let the rhythm take you

Volume 7 Number 1 January 10 - February 13 2011

 Associate Professor Neil McLachlan believes the new musical instruments he has created could herald the start of a whole new genre of music. Photo by Dave Tacon.
Associate Professor Neil McLachlan believes the new musical instruments he has created could herald the start of a whole new genre of music. Photo by Dave Tacon.

A passion for music and understanding how we connect with it has led to the development of new musical instruments. Rebecca Scott reports.

Music is to mental health what sport is to physical health, according to Associate Professor Neil McLachlan of the University of Melbourne Centre for Music, Mind and Wellbeing and School of Psychological Sciences.

It is his passion for music that has led the academic and self-taught musician to develop a new series of harmonic percussion instruments. Based on Indonesian (Gamelan) and West African percussion instruments and combining western harmonies, they are the first of their kind in the world.

“These are unique highly engineered, low-cost percussion instruments with the western sounds of harmonic overtones,” Dr McLachlan says.

“They are designed for ease of use, bring the benefit of social connectedness and are less threatening to learn than other instruments which can take years to master.

”As with the introduction of any new instruments, this could be the start of a whole new genre of music.”

Dr McLachlan says that technological advances such as the digital age have introduced new ways to understand and interact with music, but are also likely to have contributed to decreased rates of music participation in developed nations.

“The percentage of adults in western societies who continue playing the instruments they were taught at school is alarmingly low at less than five per cent,” he says.

Researchers, Dr McLachlan says, have often noted the stark contrast between patterns of musical engagement in western cultures and some non-western cultures, such as in South-East Asia and Africa, where people of all ages often exhibit a relaxed and informal attitude to music performance and learning.

“Musical and rhythmic training between individuals is fundamental to successful social engagements in human societies. This natural penchant for rhythm in humans can be readily engaged by music using percussion ensembles, as they require less instrument-specific skills at moderate levels of proficiency than most other musical techniques.”

It is based upon these principles that the new instruments were developed in order to engage people of all ages and particularly children to continue to play music.

“It’s important that children learn how to listen to music early and then also learn to appreciate it. It has proven to have great mental health benefits, create a sense of identity, creative outlet and rewarding escape.”

The original idea was first achieved in the Melbourne-based public musical instrument, the Federation Bells developed by Dr McLachlan and sculptor Anton Hazel. They are the only interactive public musical instrument for which you can write your own piece of music online.

Developed for the Centenary of Federation in 2001, the Bells were recently judged by the BBC and Lonely Planet alongside the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore as one of the top 10 public artworks in the world.

In the past 10 years, over 100 pieces have been written online for the Bells. The City of Melbourne is working to develop the Bells further so that the public can compose music on site from an iphone.

It was the success of this public musical sculpture which led to the development of the percussion instruments which has finally come about in 2010.

“Expanding on the techniques developed to make the Federation Bells, we have found a way to create these instruments cheaply so that everyone can have access for example in their own home, schools or local community centre, where adults can learn and in the formation of a professional ensembles,” says Dr McLachlan.

Having patented several different kinds of instruments such as harmonic xylophone keys, gongs and new bells, he has developed a program for school children to learn the instruments.

“We want this smooth transition from kids to parents playing all the way through to people deciding to become professional musicians without all the anxiety, proprietorship and elitism that are currently in the musical scene,” he says.

The way the brain engages with music is not fully understood. The newly formed in 2010 Centre for Music, Mind and Well-being at the University of Melbourne aims to investigate how humans respond to music and the impact it plays on wellbeing from a scientific perspective.

One of the key aims of the cross-disciplinary centre is to explore the neurological evidence that shows how every normal healthy human is musical. In addition, it aims to focus on the sociological and psychological connections to both individual mental health and societal wellbeing.

“There is evidence to show music-making’s vital roles in enhancing our resilience to depression, and helping with formation of social identity,” he says.

The newly created instruments are linked to psychological theories on how we hear music, the focus of Dr McLachlan’s research within the Centre.

The dimensions of different patterns of music are encoded in our brain and become patterns remembered in our long term memory.

“As soon as we recognise those patterns we use long-term memory to anticipate the rhythm. There is huge pleasure in that and locks in mental processing into the unfolding music.

“When it all fits together we get pleasure called ‘a flow experience’ which creates a trance-like experience.

“The sooner we engage children in playing and recognising music, the sooner they will be able to incorporate it into their lives and reap the benefits of connectedness and wellbeing.”