Thursday, September 27, 2007

Did you hear something new this week?

Sharing musical taste, or, even stronger, luring others into your favorite music, is a common activity at school and birthday parties. Nevertheless, the most common way we get to know about new or different music is probably through reviews by experts on concerts and recently released CDs. New in that sense is the role that the Internet starts to play in all this.

In the last few years it became possible to share music and musical taste through Internet communities on an much larger and more personal, one-to-one scale. This is a growing —if not booming— social and cultural phenomenon, that is clearly changing the way communities of music lovers ‘lure’ each other into other musical domains and modes of listening. Next to being facilitated by recent digital recording and distribution techniques, it is mainly the partly unforeseen impact of user-generated content (‘Web 2.0’) that contributes to its success. It seems a development that is worth studying for music, media and music cognition researchers (At the University of Amsterdam a consortium is currently thinking in that direction).

P.S. Did I hear something new last week? Well, yes. Last Monday (in the Bimhuis) I heard for the first time a begana (a 10 string lira), an instrument I saw, around age 8, on the first page of a history of musical instruments book but that I actually never heard. It didn’t sound at all the way I imagined it (listen).

Friday, September 21, 2007

Do you have amusia?

Some people doubt whether they have a sense for musical pitch? However being tone deaf is a relatively rare phenomenon that is studied by neuroscientists (who refer to it as amusia) because it might give us clues about the specificity of music. This week, in exchange for a short blog, a reference to an amusia test made available by the University of Montreal.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are there four beats or only three?

You are browsing, let us imagine, in a music shop, and come across a box of faded pianola rolls. One of them bears an illegible title, and you unroll the first foot or two, to see if you can recognize the work from the pattern of holes in the paper. Are there four beats in the bar, or only three? Does the piece begin on the tonic, or some other note? Eventually you decide that the only way of finding out is to buy the roll, take it home, and play it on the pianola. Within seconds your ears have told you what your eyes were quite unable to make out — that you are now the proud possessor of a piano arrangement of “Colonel Bogey”.

This is the opening paragraph of an article that was printed in 1979 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. It came out as part of the book Mental Processes: Studies in Cognitive Science by H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins in 1987.

The chapter on music —of which the citation above is part— made a lasting experience on me, and actually made me decide that music cognition is worth dedicating all of one's research to. It made me realize that all those things musicologists and music theorists considered mere axiom’s —such as a meter, an upbeat, or a syncopation— were extremely interesting in themselves, and could be studied using methods from this developing field called ‘cognitive science’.

It is now precisely twenty years ago since H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins’ book was published: An impressive collection of papers with topics ranging from music and language to vision and memory.

It also includes his comments to the Lighthill Report, published in 1973, in which he proposed ‘Cognitive Science’ as a label for what he saw, then, as an emerging interdisciplinary field.

Unfortunately, you have to go to the library to read it: it has been out of print for quite a while.

(See also a text in Dutch —Nieuwsbrief 102— on the same topic.)

Friday, September 07, 2007

A sense for rhythm? (Part 3)

Last Monday, together with four colleagues from the University of Amsterdam, I was asked to speak at the Opening of the Academic Year.

I started with talking about a wonderful study by Erin Hannon and Sandra Trehub (University of Cornell and University of Toronto) called "Metrical Categories in Infancy and Adulthood", and gratefully used some of the sound examples they made available online.

Interestingly, a "one-trial" version of their experiment failed miserably :-) The sign language interpreter picked up the differences immediately and communicated them so clearly to the audience that I had to ask the audience to close their eyes for the other sound examples!

The overall message was, motivated by e.g. the Hannon & Trehub study: Listen as often and as varied as you can, it will improve your sense for rhythm!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Perfect Pitch: You either have it or not?

Last week a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) that generated quite a stir, both in the academic world and in the press. In that paper researchers from the University of California presented the results from an elaborated web-based study (with about 2200 participants) that investigated the ability of Absolute Pitch (AP): being able to name the pitch of a tone without the use of a reference tone. Something some see as a musical gift, others as a burden.

The researchers found a bimodal distribution in pitch-naming ability that was interpreted as “you either have it or not”. Furthermore, they suggested a genetic basis for AP. And that’s were the discussion started ...

While there is some research in the possible genetic basis for AP, related studies (not mentioned in the PNAS paper) have argued, and to a large extend shown, that AP might well be a result of biases due to the task and stimuli used, largely a result of training, and problably more widepread than some think.

For example, Glenn Schellenberg and Sandra Trehub form the University of Toronto found support for a normal, not bimodal, distribution once pitch-naming or reproduction requirements are eliminated (such knowledge about piano keyboards or music notation) and familiar materials (such as soundtracks of tv programs) are used. They argue that good pitch memory is actually widespread.

Oliver Vitouch from the University of Klagenfurt wrote a comment a few years ago, called “Absolute models of absolute pitch are absolutely misleading”, summarizing the state of affairs in AP research, and arguing that it is mainly a result of musical training. Clearly there is little agreement on the claim that AP is a trait.

In addition, I find AP actually not such a special phenomenon. Although we could agree that AP occurs at different levels of preciseness on a continuous scale, in the end we should also agree that Relative Pitch (RP) is far more special. While we might share AP with quite a few animals, RP is far less common, arguably making AP in humans less special.