Monday, October 22, 2007

What is music cognition?

In the last three years our group has spend quite some energy in promoting music cognition as an interesting field of research in the cognitive sciences. The strategy was simple but effective: simply say ‘yes’ —and think along with— any journalist that contacts you. And, as is often the case in media land, once an idea is out and considered interesting, other media want more of the same. The challenge is, however, to make sure music cognition —its insights and results, its aims and prospects— is represented in an appropriate way, without falling into the trap of being reduced to simple facts that are useful for a popular TV quiz (see video below).

In that sense, I sympathize with initiatives like the ‘Battle of the Universities’ that promote the idea that scientists themselves should to take a lead in presenting their research (instead of ‘complaining’ about the media simplifying it too much :-). However, it is not easy to bring forward the essence of one’s field in an intriguing way.

Outreach —as it is often called— is not the same as ‘going on your knees’ to explain your research to a general audience or making populist interpretations of your field. You are in fact challenged to explain your research and insights in different terms. And that can be very rewarding and even influence to your own thinking. With regard to my own research, I could start talking about the computational modeling of music cognition, and the theoretical, empirical and computational methods that we use, but I’m sure a general audience will quickly loose me. A common trick is to think of a typical example that speaks to everyone’s imagination. I often explain my research in terms of the scientific challenge to make a listening machine. Imagine what that would be like? A machine that can listen and react in a human and musical way. And, of course, it should make the same mistakes! It allows you to explain all kinds of computational modeling notions, what should such a machine know, what should it listen for, and how can we compare and evaluate them? We just heard from our university that MCG has been selected to defend the University of Amsterdam in the Battle of the Universities. A challenge to look forward to ...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What makes a metaphor informative?

Metaphor. When I read that word I always hear the voice of Massimo Troisi (Il Postino) saying ‘Metáfore’. And indeed, like in that movie, metaphor can be mesmerizing and beautiful. However, in music research metaphor has had a debatable role. Metaphors like ‘music is movement’ —it makes you move—, ‘music is a language’, ‘music is distilled emotion’ etc. are often reducing what music is, instead of contributing to a real understanding. While crucial in the arts, metaphor is often all but informative in research.

However, the research of Zohar Eitan (Tel Aviv University) is one of the important exceptions. Instead of taking the ‘music is abstract motion’ metaphor as an explanation of how phenomena in music are constrained —governed by, for instance, the rules of elementary mechanics—, his group designed a nice set of experiments in which participants were asked to imagine a cartoon character while listening to music.

In these listening studies participants had to report when or how the imagined cartoon character was moving in response to the music. Instead of using the physical motion metaphor as an explanation, the association of listeners with physical space and bodily motion was used to reveal how music can influence mental images of motion. Interestingly, it turned out that most musical-spatial analogies are quite asymmetrical. As such providing evidence that, while music and the motion metaphor can influence each other, the latter can not fully capture the actual phenomena.

Eitan, Z., Granot, R.Y. (2006). How Music Moves. Music Perception, 23(3), 221-248. DOI: 10.1525/mp.2006.23.3.221

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Is music a luxury?

Could scientific books on music until recently not afford not to include a chapter on the anatomy of the ear, currently most books on music have to include a chapter on the anatomy of the brain. The brain is 'cool, hip and happening'.

Luckily Oliver Sacks' new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain does not include this obligatory chapter. Instead, he uses his familiar observational style in revealing his personal and medical interest in people with a particular brain disorder. In this book he focuses on music-related mental phenomena ranging from amusia and absolute pitch to dysharmonia and synesthesia, while also discussing the role of music in Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s and Williams syndrome. It is a book that fits in a trend of books by scholars that analyze and promote the importance of music in a wider perspective than is normally done by musical experts. Like Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neatherthals and Dan Levitin’s This is your brain on music, this book discusses what is so special about music, while it seriously wonders why some consider it a mere luxury (if not simply cheesecake).

In his book Sacks describes a series of medical cases where a neural deficit reveals something about the workings (or breaking down) of an intrinsic human quality we name ‘music’:
“We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one. This takes many different forms. All of us (with very few exceptions) can perceive music, perceive tones, timbre, pitch intervals, melodic contours, harmony, and (perhaps most elementally) rhythm. We integrate all of these and “construct” music in our minds using many different parts of the brain. And to this largely unconscious structural appreciation of music is added an often intense and profound emotional reaction to music. “The inexpressible depth of music,” Schopenhauer wrote, “so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.... Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”
The book is a hopeful account of the role music can play in our lives and how our brain is involved in this. It will be released this November in many languages at the same time (I just read a preprint). So this will likely not be the last bit you read about it.

Monday, October 01, 2007

What makes a theory of music surprising?

Quite a while ago, a fellow musicologist referred to me as a ‘positivist’. As I was, at that time, not too familiar with postmodern parlance, I thought of it as a compliment (making an association with the Dutch comedy duo De Positivo’s that were sheer optimistic). It turned out that actually the opposite was meant.

Last weekend in Cologne, being invited to speak at the Gesellschaft für Musikforschung, I was reminded of this remark. For some reason the methods associated with positivism, such as those used in the natural and social sciences, still flag a divide in music research between, for instance, the systematic and historically oriented approaches to music. A divide that seems to be fed by a misunderstanding of much of Popper’s ideas on ‘science’ versus ‘pseudoscience’ (see earlier blog).

While the idea of ‘falsification’ is indeed, as Popper showed in some of his later work, not very useful in historical research —as in archeology, a new found manuscript can easily falsify a long established historical theory— this does not make archeology or historical musicology a 'pseudoscience'. In my opinion, it is not so much the inapplicability of the empirical method (and hence the possibility of falsification) for historically oriented musicology, but the apparent resistance to formulate theories that can be tested, that might characterize the discussion. Is it impossible to make a theory about some aspect of (the history of) music that can be tested (or evaluated), independent of empirical evidence?

I like, particularly in this context, Popper’s idea that a theory can be intrinsically compelling or ‘surprising’, even in the absence of empirical evidence. What is intended here is not ‘surprising’ in the sense that a new fact is found that we did not yet knew about, but a prediction that, while we would expect X —given everything we know—, it actually predicts X is not the case, but rather Y. A prediction that is the consequence of a theory (made up of intuition, empirical observations or otherwise) that is violating our expectations based on what we know. I do not see why both historical and systematic musicology could use that as an additional method.