June 6, 2009 at 1:00 am

Sharing cool music and creative ideas is what keeps Ford designers fueled

Earl Lucas, chief designer on the 2010 Ford Taurus team, says the music he and others shared during the design of the car helped influence what the new Taurus finally looked like. (Velvet McNeil / The Detroit News)

Dearborn

The Ford Motor Co. product development center is like many workplaces; it's common to see employees listening to music with headphones on as they tap away on computers. Swapping of music files with colleagues is routine, and many even pass their iPods back and forth to turn a friend on to a cool song.

But a lot more than just jamming to hot sounds is going on.

Here, where designers turn abstract "shapes" into the cars and trucks that end up on the showroom floor, out-of-the-box thinking is crucial, and Earl Lucas, chief designer on the Taurus program, says the specific music that he and his designers listened to influenced the design of the 2010 Taurus.

"When you've got good music, it's amazing how many shapes come out," Lucas said. "You lose track of time. When we were working on this program, it was nothing to have our senior designer, Dean Carbus, sketching away with his music blaring; the next designer would say, 'Oh I don't have that track,' and he'd put it in his iPod. The studio has to be a creative environment like that, because we're sharing ideas all the time."

Some research supports Lucas' assertion. Most famous is the study by University of California at Irvine scientists in the '90s that came to be known as the "Mozart effect." While some of the more extreme claims, that music specifically boosts intelligence, have been debated, the link between music and enhanced creativity is accepted in most quarters.

"I don't know anything about the science," Lucas said with a laugh. "But I know my brain is affected by it. When we're trying to get jacked up about something, we turn the music up. When it's time to get serious about getting a project out, everybody has their headphones on, and they're hustling trying to get it out.

"The music somehow allows us to escape all (the problems) and get into this creative zone that we're trying so desperately to stay in all the time."

What fueled the Ford designers was a modern but diverse playlist; some trance-y house music (Paul Oakenfold), sophisticated R&B (Anthony Hamilton and Detroit's own Kem) and the bluesy, hip-hop inflected, pop melange of Citizen Cope. Lucas said the combination of sophistication and modern edge that the music represents is particularly appropriate for the new Taurus, distinguishing it from what is perceived as the old-fashioned, "your dad's Taurus" of the past.

Kem says he feels "humbled" by the fact that he might have influenced car designers.

"I wasn't able to go to the auto show, but I was looking at the design for the 2010 Taurus online and I'm really impressed," Kem said. "My hope as an artist is always to entertain and provide music that people enjoy, but the real reward for me is when it adds value to people's lives whether they're working, cleaning their house or recovering from chemotherapy treatments -- those are the stories that are rewarding."

Higher brain waves

Don Campbell is the author of "The Mozart Effect," a 2000 book that expanded on the U-Cal findings. He is also founder of the Colorado-based Institute for Music, Health and Education, and gives workshops on the effect of music on work performance.

The auditory system works on multiple levels of the brain simultaneously, Campbell asserts. "It's dealing with your balance, rhythm, speech and spatial coordination," Campbell said. "It's useful to use music in a creative process to awaken the emotions, the passion and excitement. Physically, we get up into a higher beta wave."

Beta waves are a type of brain wave usually associated with being focused and alert. Too-high levels of beta waves indicate anxiety. If it all sounds a bit trippy and unscientific, new German research has added more science to the subject.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that playing the same music can lead to synched-up brain waves in musicians. When eight pairs of guitarists played a jazz fusion melody in unison, up to 60 times, scientists found that the frontal and central regions of the musicians' brains showed strong synchronization. But even the temporal and parietal regions, not always associated with music, were in synch.

That brings to mind Ford's Taurus designers listening to the same music as a team. Automotive designers need to be able to visualize spatial patterns and mentally manipulate them, and Lucas says he's found in practice that, "the better the music, the better the shapes."

Musical experiment

Mark Sengbusch, 29, a Detroit artist now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., didn't intend to experiment with music and art back in 2003, when he was fresh out of Detroit's College for Creative Studies. Sengbusch wanted to push himself to create 20 paintings a week for 20 weeks.

"I thought, maybe I'll run out of ideas or inspiration," the artist said. "I knew I would need some sort of boost." So he put 20 musical acts in a hat, and for each of those 20 weeks he would pull a name out of the hat and play the music of that artist while painting. The artists included Miles Davis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Bjork, Talking Heads, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and Simon & Garfunkel.

Sengbusch discovered that the music he played influenced the colors he used.

"Talking Heads week was all black and gray, and Marvin Gaye week was muted mauves and earth tones with black over it, real somber," the artist said. "Bjork week was more colorful."

As the weeks went on, his paintings would more subtly reflect the musical style, whether in structure, mood or attitude, so he found it was a way to influence the art directly and indirectly.

The effect of music on writers is more complicated. While many listen to music while they work, it can be more distracting for some.

Kalamazoo author Bonnie Jo Campbell writes fiction about rural towns riven by meth labs and unemployment; her latest book is "American Salvage" (Wayne State University Press). While she loves the human voice, and is a keen fan of country-folk singers such as Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin, Campbell can't listen to their music while she writes.

"I usually cannot listen to music and write because the story and the rhythm of the musical sentence distracts me from my own story and rhythm," Campbell wrote in an e-mail. But she can listen to music while doing revising and editing.

As for Ford's Taurus designers, they may have scored a sale with singer Kem.

"Bless them, man," Kem said. "I'm in the market for a new vehicle. I was looking at that Flex, I didn't even know the Taurus was being revamped. Now, I'll have to look at that one."

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The science of sound

  • Scientists believe that seniors and Alzheimer's patients can still recall songs from their earliest years because the part of the brain linked to music and memories, the medial prefrontal cortex, is one of the last parts of the brain to atrophy.
  • According to Don Campbell, author of "The Mozart Effect," the auditory system works on multiple levels of the brain simultaneously, dealing with balance, rhythm, speech and spatial coordination. "Physically we get up into a higher beta wave," he says. Beta waves are a type of brain wave that is usually associated with peak performance, being focused and alert (although at too high levels, you would be anxious and overwrought).
  • Scientists at the Max Planck Center for Human Development in Berlin had eight pairs of guitarists play a jazz fusion melody together up to 60 times. When they measured their brain activity, it was found that the frontal and central regions of the guitarists' brains were synchronized to a high degree. Most surprising was that in more than half the musicians, the temporal and parietal regions showed significant synchronization.

  • Lucas with the 2010 Ford Taurus, which he helped design. (Velvet McNeil / The Detroit News)