Friday, June 29, 2007

‘So much to talk about’

Today it is a week since I decided to tryout writing a daily blog on music cognition. It feels good. However, not to start repeating myself too quickly, I will lower that rate somewhat to, say, once a week.

I’m now off to the (roughly) bi-annual RPPW, a workshop in Dublin on Rhythm Perception and Production. My favorite topic, besides being the first scientific conference I ever went to (the picture above is from the 1988 RPPW). It collects research from a diversity of fields, ranging from psycho-linguistics to music psychology, with a small group of participants all seriously interested in rhythmic phenomena. Earlier conferences had, besides sessions on rhythm in language and music, talks on golf, rowing and Parkinson disease. Traditionally the meeting is held in a place that has a lot similarities with a monastery: talking, eating and sleeping, all in one remote place. I miss Amsterdam already, but do look forward to the many discussions on rhythm, timing and tempo.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why doesn’t it groove?

Jazz and pop musicians spent a lot of time trying to work out ‘the feel’, ‘the groove’, or how to ‘time’ a particular piece of music. It is everything but arbitrary, and even the smallest detail counts. All to get the right timing at the right tempo. It clearly matters!

Music performance studies have looked at these timing details a lot. While often focusing on classical music, more and more studies are now looking at jazz, pop and world music. Tomorrow Bas de Haas (studying at the University of Utrecht) hopes to graduate on a MSc thesis on groove and swing. He asked three well known Dutch drummers —Joost Lijbaart, Joost Kroon and Marcel Seriese— to play a fragment of Swing, the famous break from Funky Drummer by James Brown, and a so-called Shuffle. And had them do this at different tempi.

As always, the relation between timing and tempo turns out to be more complicated than thought of previously. A straightforward model would be that all timing scales proportionally with tempo. It is like making a particular movement: when performing it at a different speed, people generally do it faster (or slower) by doing every part of the movement faster (or slower) in proportion. This apparently works for computer models that imitate human movement, but does not work for music, let alone for our ears. If you slow down a recording you probably immediately hear that something is wrong. Not because the tempo is wrong, but because the timing sounds awkward.

The challenge is to make a model of timing and tempo that, when, for instance, Funky Drummer is scaled to a different tempo, it still sounds groovy. Bas de Haas hopes to show his first attempts at a conference in Montreal this summer.

* See here for a related paper.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Does KV 448 make you smarter?

Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (KV 448) is one of the most used compositions in music cognition research. Since the publication of the study Music and spatial task performance in Nature in 1993, numerous researchers have tried to replicate the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ using this composition. And often with little success. The idea is of course compelling: to become smarter by simply listening to Mozart’s music. It could be a helpful fact in the much needed support for a more prominent place of music in the curricula. However, the effect has been shown to appear not only with the music of Mozart, but also that of Beethoven, Sibelius, and even a ‘Blur effect’ was shown, based on a study in which 8,000 teenagers participated (see reference below).

Currently, the most likely interpretation of the effect is that music listening can have a positive effect on our cognitive abilities when the music is enjoyed by the listener. Apparently (and in a way unfortunately), it is not so much the structure of the music that causes the effect, but a change in the mood of the listener. While this indirectness might be disappointing for admirers of Mozart’s music, it is important to note that, at the same time, it leaves uncovered an important aspect of music appreciation. What makes certain music so effective in changing or intensifying our mood? It seems that while we are all experienced and active users of music as a kind of mood regulator (widely ranging from energizer to consoler of grief), music research has only just begun to explore the how and why of the relation between music and emotion.

ResearchBlogging.orgSCHELLENBERG, E., & HALLAM, S.(2005). Music Listening and Cognitive Abilities in 10- and 11-Year-Olds: The Blur Effect Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060 (1), 202-209 DOI: 10.1196/annals.1360.013

Friday, June 22, 2007

Why do I remember the next song?

Last week a national newspaper phoned me for an answer to a readers question Why do I suddenly remember the next song when listening to a CD? A phenomenon I’m almost too familiar with since I have the habit to repeatedly listen to music. When playing an album from beginning to end the phenomenon appears just before the end of a song, just when the silence between two songs is about to start. The next song pops up in your mind (and often quite loudly), while you were hardly aware of this just a few seconds ago. To avoid this irritating effect I always use the shuffle function of the CD player or iPod, effectively avoiding the apparent learning of these transitions. However, the phenomenon is interesting in itself. It is is a result of what seems our ‘iconic’ or absolute memory for music at work. More common is our relative memory for music. While most of us can easily recognize the melody of a popular song, few can judge whether it is played at the original pitch height. We seem to remember the pitch intervals or contour of the melody, not the frequencies of the pitches itself. By contrast, the phenomenon discussed above hints at the presence of an absolute memory for music. It seems that even young children can judge whether a familiar television tune is the original or one that is scaled up a few tones. Apparently we all have both absolute and relative memory for music.