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November 3, 2000

LOVE, DEATH, & LAUGHTER: NEUROSCIENTIST EXAMINES OPERA'S LIGHTER SIDE

New Orleans, LA - Noted laugher expert and University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) professor Robert Provine will take his research to operatic heights at the upcoming Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans.

Provine recently studied the structure of laughter sung as part of opera scores using musical notation, the most rigorous means of sound description available in the pre-electronic age. He then contrasted the results with real-life laughter analysis using the modern, descriptive method of the sound spectrograph.

Provine and two student collaborators in the UMBC psychology department, Helen Weems and Lisa Greisman, discovered that many famous composers scored musical laughter a bit slower than the real thing. Most maestros agreed that laugh passages should have a fast tempo, with chuckle-filled tunes usually having an allegro (fast) or even presto (very fast) tempo. But, the study noted, even the shortest opera laugh notes weren't up to speed with real life ha-has, ho-hos and hee-hees. Real laughter notes only last about 1/15 of a second and are repeated every 1/5 second or so.

A few classic conductors got their guffaws almost scientifically accurate. Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, nearly replicated the rhythm of real laughs by scoring laughter as separate staccato notes. Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti was one of the few scores who got the punctuation effect of laughter right by placing the funny stuff after a sentence instead of in the middle of one.

"In the end, we learned a lot more about opera than laughter," said Provine. "Laughter in opera is always in the service of the song and seldom vice-versa," he said.

Provine's 10 year quest to understand laughter, what it is, when we do it, and what it means, is described in the recently published book LAUGHTER: A SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION (Viking, October 2000). His research has been profiled by Psychology Today, Newsweek, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC News' "20/20," PBS TV's "Scientific American Frontiers," American Scientist, Newsday, and The San Francisco Chronicle, New Scientist, Discover and many others.

Posted by dwinds1 at November 3, 2000 12:00 AM