Saturday, March 05, 2011

A case of congenital beat deafness?

Of most people that claim things like ‘Oh, but I’m not musical at all’, ‘I’m hopeless at keeping a tune’ or ‘I have no sense of rhythm’, only a small percentage turn out to be unmusical. The condition is known as amusia, and those who suffer from it are literally music-deficient. It is a rather exceptional, mostly inherited condition that comprises a range of handicaps in recognising or reproducing melodies and rhythms. It has been estimated that about 4 per cent of the people in Western Europe and North America have problems in this direction, to a greater or lesser degree. The most common handicap is tone-deafness or dysmelodia: the inability or difficulty in hearing the difference between two separate melodies.

To diagnose amusia, the Montreal Battery of Evaluation of Amusia (MBEA) has been developed. This test is available online – but wait a while before trying it out :-) People who say: ‘I can’t hold a note,’ ‘I sing out of tune,’ or ‘I have no sense of rhythm,’ are not necessarily suffering from amusia. Such people often confuse poor singing or dancing skills with the absence of a sense of hearing differences in melodies and rhythms. For instance, clapping a complex rhythm or dancing to the music requires quite some practice. Nevertheless, almost all of us can hear the differences between rhythms. It has been established that, even in people who are diagnosed as being tone-deaf, about half of them have a normal sense for rhythm (Peretz & Hyde, 2003).

Jessica Phillips-Silver (Université de Montréal, Canada) and a dream-team of music cognition experts found a person that claims to have truly no sense for rhythm, or, more precisely, is apparently deaf to hearing regularity in music. They describe their results in an upcoming issue of Neuropsychologia.

All tests presented in this intriguing study indeed hint at a person that has a true deficit in picking up the regularity in music (the ‘beat’ or regular pulse).

However, as with other studies on beat induction, it has proven to be very difficult to support the presence or absence of this skill on judging overt behavior such as dancing (see earlier entries on, e.g., Snowball). The study presents one (non-standard) perceptual test on beat perception, and I’m surprised the researchers did not use a relatively simple and far more direct test to see if beat induction is present or absent in this participant, such as the MMN paradigm used in work with newborns (e.g., Honing et al., 2009) or other recent studies making use of brain imaging methods. Would make a great follow-up paper.*

ResearchBlogging.orgPhillips-Silver, J., Toiviainen, P., Gosselin, N., Piché, O., Nozaradan, S., Palmer, C., & Peretz, I. (2011). Born to dance but beat deaf: A new form of congenital amusia Neuropsychologia DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.02.002

ResearchBlogging.orgPeretz, I. & Hyde, K. (2003). What is specific to music processing? Insights from congenital amusia Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7 (8), 362-367 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00150-5

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., Ladinig, O., Háden, G., & Winkler, I. (2009). Is Beat Induction Innate or Learned? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169 (1), 93-96 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04761.x

* In fact, we started working on it this summer (Lidji, Palmer, Honing & Peretz, in preparation)

Friday, March 04, 2011

Can infants recognize melodies heard in the womb?

Last week PloS One published an interesting finding that shows that one month old infants can recognize a melody that they heard about three weeks before they were born.

Developmental psychobiologist Carolyn Granier-Deferre (Paris Descartes University, France) and her colleagues asked fifty women to play a brief recording of a descending piano melody (one that gets lower in pitch) twice daily in the 35th, 36th and 37th weeks of their pregnancy. When the infants were one month old, both the descending melody and an ascending melody were played to the babies in the laboratory (while they slept; see notation below). On average, the heart rates of the sleeping babies briefly slowed by about twelve beats a minute with the familiar descending melody (right), and by only five or six beats with the unfamiliar ascending melody (left). A result that was interpreted as the infants paying more attention to the familiar than the unfamiliar melody.

We know for a while that newborns can discriminate or perceive most of the acoustic properties of speech. The prevailing theoretical view is that these capacities are mostly independent of previous auditory experience and that newborns have an innate bias or skill for perceiving speech.

By contrast, these results show (as the authors stress in a press release) that merely exposing a human fetus’ developing auditory system to complex stimuli (read ‘music’) can affect how it functions.

Next to role of mere exposure one should add that this result is equally convincing evidence for a newborn’s capacity of perceiving and recalling music (see my earlier ‘language bias’ entry). In that sense this study adds to the growing literature that shows that infants in the womb are sensitive to, and can memorize both melody and rhythm. These findings play an important role in a further understanding of a potential biological and evolutionary role of music (cf. Parncutt, 2009).

ResearchBlogging.orgGranier-Deferre, C., Bassereau, S., Ribeiro, A., Jacquet, A., & DeCasper, A. (2011). A Melodic Contour Repeatedly Experienced by Human Near-Term Fetuses Elicits a Profound Cardiac Reaction One Month after Birth PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017304

ResearchBlogging.orgParncutt, R. (2009). Prenatal development and the phylogeny and ontogeny of musical behaviour. In S. Hallam, I. Cross, & M. Thaut (Eds.), Oxford handbook of music psychology (pp. 219-228). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Is music a result of sexual selection?

For Charles Darwin it was clear: neither the perception nor the production of music were “faculties of the least use to man." At the same occasion he also wrote that “[these faculties] must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.” (Darwin, 1871). Darwin's hunch was that music could be seen as a product of sexual selection, comparable to a male bird’s display of seductive feathers.

This week two of my favorite YouTube videos. They ilustrate - anecdotally - Darwin’s idea of music as a result of sexual selection (At least that is how you could interpret the behavior of these two great performers/musicians and their admiring audience ;-)

However, despite the attractiveness of Darwin’s idea (more recently elaborated by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey F. Miller in his book The Mating Mind) there are more arguments against than in favor of this line of thought. One being the fact that major differences could then be expected in the anatomy and behavior of men and women, as is the case where sexual selection in songbirds is concerned. Unlike with songbirds, whales, frogs, and other “song”-producing creatures, there is no substantial difference in the way men or women perceive or produce music nor in their physiology related to music processing (cf. Honing, 2011). The search for the origins of music continues... Blute, M. (2003). [Book Review: The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature] The Quarterly Review of Biology, 78 (1), 129-130 DOI: 10.1086/377917

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (in press, 2011) Musical Cognition. A Science of Listening. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

ResearchBlogging.orgDarwin, G. (1871) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.London: Murray (p. 878).