Saturday, August 18, 2007

A 2006 recording of Glenn Gould?

Sony Music recently released a new recording (made in 2006) of Glenn Gould performing the Goldberg Variations. Curious, not? The recording was made using measurements of the old recordings and then regenerating the performance on a computer-controlled grand piano, a modern pianola.

This technology dates from the early nineties, a time when several piano companies (including Yamaha and Bösendorfer) combined MIDI and modern solenoid technology with the older idea of a pianola. Old paper piano rolls with recordings of Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Stravinsky and others were translated to MIDI and could be reproduced ‘live’ on modern instruments like the Yamaha Disklavier. Until now, the only left challenge was to be able to do this for recordings of which no piano-rolls were available.

Besides the technicalties of all this, for most people the real surprise —or perhaps disillusion— might well be the realization that a piano performance can be reduced to the ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘how fast’ the piano keys are pressed. Three numbers per note can fully capture a piano performance, and it allows for replicating any performance on a grand piano(-la). The moment a pianist hits the key with a certain velocity, the hammer releases, and any gesture that is made after that can be considered merely dramatic: it will have no effect on the sound. This realization puts all theories about the magic of touché in a different perspective.

Nevertheless, while it is relatively easy to make the translation from audio (say a recording from Glenn Gould from 1955) to the what (which notes), and the when (timing) in a MIDI-like representation, the problem is in the ‘reverse engineering’ of key velocity. What was the speed of Gould’s finger presses on the specific piano he used? The Zenph Studios claim to have solved it for at least a few recordings. Only trust your ears :-)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Is it a male or female performer?

This week an interesting new web-based experiment was launched by the International Music Education Research Centre. They address the question: Can listeners determine the gender of the performer on the basis of a recording? Do the experiment by clicking here, and help in finding out ...

Nowadays more and more music cognition researchers are making use of the internet. Next to becoming a serious alternative to some types of lab-based experiments, web-based data collection might even avoid some of the pitfalls of lab-based studies, such as the typical psychology-students-pool biased results, by potentially being able the reach a much larger, more varied and motivated participant pool, as well as having participants doing the experiment in a more natural environment as compared to the lab.

Nevertheless, the real challenge in web-based experiments is how to control for attention. And interestingly, this is not different from experiments performed in the lab. In an online experiment as well, one needs to make sure people are paying attention and actually doing what you instructed them to do. One of the ways we try to resolve that in our online experiments is —next to the standard tricks— to make online experiments as engaging as possible. For instance, by using screencasts, instead of having to read instructions from the screen, and, more importantly, designing a fun and doable experiment that is challenging at the same time. All such that we can assume we attract serious and really interested listeners (see example). With all these aspects improving over time, I am sure that web experiments will become a more and more a reliable source for empirical research in music cognition.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Piano touch unraveled?

A few postings ago I mentioned a remake of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations. It was related to the topic of piano touch (or touché), a notion pianists and music lovers often talk about, and that is, nevertheless, surrounded with a lot of magic.

Several researchers are researching this topic, including Werner Goebl and Caroline Palmer at McGill University, Canada. They presented their recent findings at the SMPC conference on music perception and cognition in Montreal. Using a movement tracking device it was possible to track a pianist’s finger movements on a digital piano keyboard (Apparently a grand piano could not be used because of the need to film/measure these movements from the piano towards the hands; see photo).

By analyzing the performances of twelve professional pianists, they found that different finger movements did not lead to differences in timing precision or in tone intensity. That is a novel finding. However, the actual relation between the finger movements and the resulting velocity of the piano key after contact was not studied as yet (a replication of this study on a modern pianola —like the Yamaha Disklavier or Bösendorfer— seems a logical next step).

My hunch is that the finger dynamics will not matter so much (as was in part suggested by this study). The gestures made by a pianist, including finger movements and what is generally referred to as piano touch, have more to do with habit and a sense of control, then that they actually have an influence on the key velocity that, next to the timing, effectively contributes to the sound and musical quality of the performance. This type of research will find out soon …

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

'What paper did you like most?'

I’m currently in Montreal visiting the SMPC, a conference on music cognition with more than 150 papers from 21 countries in four days. What is the paper I liked most, half way the conference?

If I had to choose now, it would be a poster by Laurel Trainor and colleagues from McMaster University on the effects of the vestibular system on perception. Intriguing research. First, they replicated the effect of rocking movement on rhythm perception in adults, a result they showed for babies a few years ago. An ambiguous rhythmic pattern (|.|||.) was perceived in triple meter (>.>.>.) when a listener was moved in three, and it was perceived as duple (>..>..) when they were moved in two. Obvious in a way, but one of the few studies that actually shows an influence of movement on rhythm perception.

Interestingly, seeing some one else moving to the rhythm in two or three did not have such an disambiguating effect. That makes an important difference with mirror neuron system research that suggests a strong relation between doing and observing an action. Trainor and colleagues argue, and partially showed, that it therefore is likely the vestibular (or balance) system that causes this effect. With, as far as this was controlled for, no cognitive influence on the disambiguation like one might expect. Independent of the alternative explanations that might be possible, it is a striking result in the still little understood relation between music and movement.