Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is music mere play?

Early this morning I was called by the Dutch radio for a daily question on science, and was confronted with the question: Why do we like music? (fragment). Since why-questions are generally almost impossible to answer, I was happy —just in time— to think of the idea of ‘music as play’. But because all of this went almost too quickly, I thought I would slightly eloborate on it in this blog...

The idea is that music, as a human phenomenon, can be seen as something that plays with our senses, our memory, our attention and our emotions, in the way young lions play, without any real threat. Music, generally, does not harm us, it also doesn’t make us less hungry, but it directly addresses our physiological and cognitive functions. For many music listeners this is a pleasant, rewarding, purposeful and sometimes even a consoling play.*

I like this idea of ‘music as play’ far better than the discussion of whether music is an adaptation or a mere evolutionary by-product of more important functions, such as those involved in language (Pinker, 1997). Also Geoffrey Miller’s alternative suggesting sexual selection to be the primary mechanism in the evolution of music is still lacking the proper arguments and evidence. ‘Music as play’ is far more attractive, because it might explain several of our strange behaviors, such as listening to ‘sad’ music when we are sad, to make us even more sad — we apparently know it will not really harm us!

The idea of ‘man as a player’ was brought forward by several authors, including Johan Huizinga who wrote Homo Ludens (‘Man the Player’) in the 1930s. It is the topic of the 2007 Huizinga lectureby Tijs Goldschmidt (a biologist and writer known from, e.g., Darwin's Dreampond). His lecture will be called Doen alsof je doet alsof (‘Pretend to pretend’). I'm sure he will say something about music too. [cf. pp. 20-21]

* See Dutch article on the idea of 'music as play'.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Is beat induction special? (Part 2)

Rhythmic behavior in non-human animals, such as chimpanzees, has been studied quite regularly. The video below is a nice illustration of how chimpanzees can use tools in a rhythmic, periodic fashion. Other researchers have shown that some apes are even capable of regularly tapping a drum. However, they seem unable to beat a drum—or rhythmically move or dance, for that matter— in synchrony to music, like a human would be able to do.


Hence the big surprise of the video below. A YouTube video that attracted quite some media attention in the US. What do you think? Evidence for beat induction (*) in animals?

The ultimate test is to do an experiment in which the speed (or tempo) of the music is systematically controlled for, to be able to answer the crucial question: will the Cockatoo dance slightly faster if the music is presented slightly faster?

I would be flabbergasted if that would be the case, since for a long time beat induction was considered a human trait, which I argued —along with some colleagues— to be essential to the origins of music in humans.

Currently, a North-American research group tries to find out. I'll keep you posted.

* Beat induction is the process in which a regular isochronous pattern (the beat) is activated while listening to music. This beat, often tapped along by musicians, is a central issue in time keeping in music performance. But also for non-experts the process seems to be fundamental to the processing, coding and appreciation of temporal patterns. The induced beat carries the perception of tempo and is the basis of temporal coding of temporal patterns. Furthermore, it determines the relative importance of notes in, for example, the melodic and harmonic structure.

Desain, P., Honing, H. (1999). Computational Models of Beat Induction: The Rule-Based Approach.. Journal of New Music Research, 28(1), 29-42.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

In Barcelona this week?

CosmoCaixa, the new science museum in Barcelona, is organizing an exhibition with the title Física y música. Vibraciones para el alma (see impression). In this context the museum organizes on November 16 a full day of lectures with the title “Music, Neuroscience, Technology” for which a number of international researchers have been invited to present their work in music cognition and related areas.

The day opens with Isabelle Peretz and Robert Zatorre, well-known for their neuroscientific work - the first for her medical case-studies and research in amusia, the latter for his innovative brain imaging research in music and audition. The rest of the day will include presentations by Tecumseh Fitch (University of St Andrews, UK) who will look at music from an evolutionary perspective, Patrick Juslin (Uppsala University, Sweden) who will talk about music and emotion, Michel Thaut on music therapy (Colorado State University, USA), and Xavier Serra (Universidad Pompeu Fabra, Spain) on music technology. Finally, I will present some recent work on rhythm cognition as it was realized in the context of an EU-FP6 project on emergent cognition (see earlier blog). The latter project, EmCAP —a consortium of 6 research groups from 4 European universities—, will be reviewed this week in Barcelona as well. I look forward to it ...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Is beat induction special?

In the 1990s several researchers in cognitive science were concerned with trying to understand beat induction: the cognitive process of attributing a regular pulse to a musical fragment, the beat we're sometimes forced to tap our foot to.

I would like to argue that, from an evolutionary perspective, beat induction is one, if not the most fundamental aspect that made music possible. It allows us, humans, to synchronize, to dance, to clap, and to make music together, synchronizing to the beat of the music. Beat induction seems essential for all kinds of social and cultural activities, including rituals.

Interestingly, we do not share this capability with other animals. Researchers have, until now, unsuccessfully tried to have non-human animals —such as chimpanzees and elephants— synchronize to music. While non-human animals might show rhythmic behavior (like chimpanzees using tools) , they can not, for instance, play a drum in synchrony with the music, and consequently change it while the music changes tempo. However, some researchers, like Ani Patel of the Neuroscience Institute San Diego (see *), are optimistic.

For me, personally, there is no need to show that beat induction is solely a human trait, but it suggests that beat induction could have made a difference in the cognitive development of the human species.

* Patel, A.D. & Iversen, J.R. (2006). A non-human animal can drum a steady beat on a musical instrument. In: Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Music Perception & Cognition (ICMPC9), Bologna/Italy, August 22-26 2006, p. 477.