Thursday, March 20, 2008

Can musical expression be understood?

In 1985 the composer György Ligeti published some wonderful Etudes for piano. I regularly listen to them ever since. They were also the material (or at least a few bars of “Cordes Vides”) to test an idea for an expression editor: a system that was aimed to facilitate editing operations that are musically meaningful while at the same time amounting to perceptually sound results. The editor, named Expresso, was conceived as a calculus of expression. Quite an ambitious project that aimed to formally describe how different types of expression are linked to different types of musical structure.

The research was inspired by several researchers in the field of “musical expression”: Henry Shaffer, Eric F. Clarke, John Sloboda,Christhoper Longuet-Higgins, Johan Sundberg, Alf Gabrielsson (just to name a few European researchers), all of them contributed, along with quite a few fellow researchers all over the world, to an understanding on how "expressive nuances" in music performance make the difference between one and another performance. A recent paper by Luke Windsor (University of Leeds) summarizes and elaborates on this research. You might like it.

Windsor, W.L. et al. (2006). A structurally guided method for the decomposition of expression in music performance. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 119(2), 1182. DOI: 10.1121/1.2146091

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Why do we have music? (On music vs musicality)

Looking back on it, a returning question in this blog turns out to be: Why do we have music? And what is the point of studying it scientificly?

While it became quite popular to address such questions from an evolutionary perspective, there is still little support for the idea that music is an adaptation, that it makes you live longer, or that it makes one sexually more attractive. In fact, it made Steven Pinker position music as, at most, a byproduct of language:
As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless … music is quite different from language … it is a technology, not an adaptation (Pinker, 1997)
This statement —and the reference to music as ‘auditory cheesecake'— did not, as you can imagine, increase his popularity among music lovers. Nevertheless, he succeeded well in starting up a discussion under music scholars and cognitive scientists on why we have music and why it could be relevant for cognitive science to study music (e.g., Ashley et al, 2006; Zatorre, 2005).

In that respect, the archaeologist Steven Mithen did something you might have expected from a music scholar or cognitive scientist. In his book The Singing Neantherthals he presents a compelling story in support of the shared evolutionary origins of music and language. As the book title suggests, Mithen is particularly concerned with the Neanderthals, presenting them as intelligent and highly emotional individuals who communicated with a particularly musical version of Hmmmmm. (‘Hmmmm’ being Mithen's proposal for a musilanguage that might have preceded language and music).

In turn, Mithen’s book generated quite some discussion as well. In part because of the (impossible) question on what defines music, or, to be more precise, the important distinction between musicality and music. In a recent paper Mithen makes himself more clear:
The distinction I should have made explicit was between a ‘natural biologically based musicality’ and music as a culturally constructed phenomenon which builds upon that biological basis. So the musical ‘m’ in Hmmmmm ought to stand for the former — which had seemed quite obvious to me already — while the latter developed after Hmmmmm had bifurcated into music and language. Although I appreciate that the following have a culturally learnt component, I would describe bird song, whale song, primate vocalizations and baby babble as possessing musicality rather than being music.

Mithen, S., Morley, I., Wray, A., Tallerman, M., Gamble, C. (2006). The Singing Neanderthals: the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body , by Steven Mithen. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005. ISBN 0-297-64317-7 hardback £20 & US$25.2; ix+374 pp.. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(01), 97. DOI: 10.1017/S0959774306000060

McDERMOTT, J., HAUSER, M. (2005). THE ORIGINS OF MUSIC: INNATENESS, UNIQUENESS, AND EVOLUTION. Music Perception, 23(1), 29-59. DOI: 10.1525/mp.2005.23.1.29