Hip Lab Rats Dig Miles Davis

Miles Davis in the 1950's

Lab rats prefer Miles Davis to Beethoven – but only if they’ve listened to Miles after being injected with cocaine. When they haven’t been coked up, they prefer Beethoven – or, best of all, silence.

Those critically important findings come from a study right here at Albany Medical College. As reported by Cathleen Crowley in yesterday’s Times Union, the study made the Top 10 list of “Most Ridiculous Research on Animals of 2011″  from the California-based group In Defense of Animals. The lead editorial in today’s TU made the point that the research isn’t absurd, and that it may in fact provide important information about cues that stimulate drug cravings and lead to discovery of ways to neutralize these cues and block addiction.

But I’m more interested in the rats’ musical tastes. Since adolescence, when I actually met and spoke with Miles several times, I’ve been wild about his music. On the other hand, I’m far from a Beethoven fan, and I’ve often taken a snobbish pride in putting him down. Too bombastic, too repetitious, too harmonically mundane. Give me Bach or Bartok any day, or anything from Schumann or Brahms to 20thcentury avant-garde music. (I’m not a fan of Mozart either, but I won’t go into that.)

Ludwig Van Beethoven

But when I reread the article, I saw that the Beethoven they played for the rats was “Fur Elise,” a solo piano piece played by students the world over. So they didn’t really get a fair dose of Beethoven, in my opinion. And though I hate to admit it, I actually enjoy much of his chamber and piano music. As a teen, I even played some of the sonatas, albeit abominably – the Apassionata and the Pathetique were my favorites. But somehow I doubt the rats would have appreciated his Fifth Symphony, let alone his Ninth with its Ode to Joy.

As for the researchers’ Miles Davis selection, “Four” is a moderately uptempo tune he recorded with a quartet in the early 1950’s for the Prestige label. I still have the ten-inch LP in a carton along with other vinyl treasures I may get around to auctioning on E-Bay one of these days. Maybe the rats liked the regular rhythmic pulsation, conjuring up sense memories of their mothers’ heartbeats.

I can envision many more experiments. Do rats prefer Beethoven’s piano pieces to his symphonies? What about Beethoven vs. Mozart or Bach? And which period of Miles’s career do they like best? The early neo-bop combos, the magnificent orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans, the crossover electrified oeuvre of his later years? And how do various drugs affect their musical preferences? Do they like uptempo jazz with cocaine and mellower ballads with marijuana? Somehow I can’t picture this research happening any time soon. No big loss, really.

I was planning to end this post with my “How I met Miles and what he said to me” stories, but I couldn’t condense them into a couple of paragraphs. You’ll just have to wait till next time. So as not to miss them, why not subscribe to my blog?

Forget cool cats - we're the cool rats!

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