Sunday, December 21, 2008

A 2006 recording of Glenn Gould?*

A well-known recording company recently released a new recording of Glenn Gould performing the Goldberg Variations. The recording date was summer 2006. Curious, not? Another pianist with the same name as the legendary Canadian musician?

Actually, the recording was made using measurements of the original, old recordings that were used to remake the performance on a computer-controlled grand piano, a modern pianola. In the recording studio a grand piano was moving its keys without someone behind the piano. Glenn Goulds original performance was re-performed on a modern instrument in a modern studio.

The technology that was used dates from the early nineties, a time when several piano companies (including Yamaha and Bosendorfer) combined MIDI (an industry standard for communicating between computers and electronic keyboard instruments) and modern solenoid technology with the older idea of a pianola. Old paper piano rolls with recordings of Rachmaninoff, Ravel, 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 exist.

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 actually 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 together with the pedaling information 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 piano 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.

* Repeated blog entry from August 18, 2007.

ResearchBlogging.orgWerner Goebl, Caroline Palmer (2008). Tactile feedback and timing accuracy in piano performance Experimental Brain Research, 186 (3), 471-479 DOI: 10.1007/s00221-007-1252-1

Monday, December 15, 2008

Does rhythm make our bodies move?*

Why do some people dance more rhythmically to music than others? Are these differences genetically or culturally determined? These are some typical questions journalists who are interested in rhythm research like to ask.

The link between musical rhythm and movement has been a fascination for a small yet passionate group of researchers. Early examples, from the 1920s, are the works by Alexander Truslit and Gustav Becking. More recently researchers like Neil Todd (University of Manchester, England) [1] defend a view that makes a direct link between musical rhythm and movement. Direct in the sense that it is argued that rhythm perception can be explained in terms of our physiology and body metrics (from the functioning of our vestibular system to leg length and body size).

While this might be a natural line of thought for most people, the consequences of such theories are peculiar. They predict, for instance, that body length will have an effect on our rhythm perception, longer people preferring slower musical tempi (or rates), shorter people preferring faster ones. Hence, females (since they are on average shorter than men) should have a preference for faster tempi as compared to males.

To me that is too direct and naïve a relation. There are quite a few studies that looked for these direct physiological relations (like heart rate, spontaneous tapping rate, walking speed, etc.) and how these might influence or even determine rhythm perception. However, none of these succeeded in finding a convincing correlation, let alone a causal relation. In addition, they ignore the influence that culture and cognition apparently have on rhythm perception. Nevertheless it should be added that embodied explanations do form a healthy alternative to the often too restricted ‘mentalist’ or cognitive approach.

An intriguing study in that respect was done by Jessica Phillips-Silver and Laurel Trainor (McMaster University, Canada) [2] a few years ago. They did an inventive experiment with seven month old babies, and showed that body movement (i.e. not body size) can influence rhythm perception. They had a group of mothers bounce their infants on a rhythm that could be interpreted as either being in duple or in triple meter. They could show (using a head-turn preference procedure, measuring the time an infant pays attention to a stimulus) that bouncing in three or in four influenced the perception of the infant. While one could be critical on some important details, this is a striking empirical finding, and a small step forward in trying to underpin the relation between rhythm cognition and human movement.

ResearchBlogging.orgJ. Phillips-Silver (2005). Feeling the Beat: Movement Influences Infant Rhythm Perception Science, 308 (5727), 1430-1430 DOI: 10.1126/science.1110922

* Repeated blog entry from July 17, 2007.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Waarom kan muziek zulke sterke herinneringen oproepen? [Dutch]

'Muziek raakt onze allerdiepste emoties en blijkt een spoor te trekken in de hersenen. Muziek is ook een drager van herinneringen. Hoe werkt dat? En waarom houdt de één van Bach en de ander van The Beatles?'
De Ncrv-tv zendt vandaag een aflevering uit over muziek, emotie en herinneringen. Zie de trailer. Voor de volledige aflevering, zie uitzending gemist. Zie tevens gerelateerd artikel in de Volkskrant bijlage van 13.12.2008 (met levendige reacties).