Monday, February 27, 2012

Too old to learn how to play an instrument?

Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? Is it possible to learn an instrument at the age of forty? Those are the questions that Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning:
'If critical periods aren't quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams—whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new thing), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness—as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure—than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.' Marcus, G. (2012) Guitar Zero. The New Musician and the Science of Learning. New York: Penguin.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What is the relation between language and cognition?

What is the relation between language and cognition? On the one hand, researchers like Noam Chomsky thought of language as an independent function with its own rules. However, other people – mainly psychologists – thought that language as a system is embedded in cognition and subject to all models of cognition. How do researchers currently view the relation between language and cognition? Have new techniques for brain research and research on cognitive functions led to a great change in this regard?

Here* you can find a recording of a recent debate that was held at the Cognitive Science Center Amsterdam with a panel consisting of Rens Bod, Annette de Groot, Jeannette Schaeffer, and Hedde Zeijlstra all working at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, music showed up several times in the discussion as well.

* UvA streaming video; Sorry, only visible for UvA-students and employees.

ResearchBlogging.orgHauser MD, Chomsky N, & Fitch WT (2002). The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science (New York, N.Y.), 298 (5598), 1569-79 PMID: 12446899

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Does performance matter?

Empirical musicology grew out of a desire to ground theories on empirical observation and to construct theories on the basis of the analysis and interpretation of such observations. The arrival of new technologies, most notably that of MIDI and of the personal computer, were instrumental to the considerable increase in the number of empirically oriented investigations into music.

David Huron (1999; 2006) referred to this reorientation as “new empiricism” and considers it, along with “new musicology,” the most influential movement in recent music scholarship. However, the question remains in how far musicology as a whole has been influenced by this new empiricism.

One of the challenges of empirical musicology is still to discuss how systematic and empirical methods can contribute to a further and more precise understanding of musical phenomena, as well as showing how this understanding could have an effect on musicological discourse.

Below a tongue-in-cheek example of how a single score can give rise to an enormous variety of intriguing performances. 
Huron, D. (2006). Review of Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects, and: Statistics in Musicology. Notes, 63 (1), 93-95 DOI: 10.1353/not.2006.0101
ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (2006). On the growing role of observation, formalization and experimental method in musicology. Empirical Musicology Review, 1(1), 2-5. EMR000002a.pdf

Friday, February 17, 2012

Do musicians listen better?

Today, Makiko Sadakata (Donders Center, Nijmegen) gave a presentation at our monthly meeting on music cognition and computational musicology [1]. She presented a study in which the question was whether musicians do better in perceiving pitch, duration or other timbral deviations in their own and/or unfamiliar languages.

A striking example was the difference in pronunciation between the Japanese words ‘kanyo’ and ‘kannyo’. To my ears, and most of the audience, identical. However, to Japanese ears two very different meanings.

Using discrimination and identification tasks, Sadakata investigated in how far musicians do better in picking up these nuances. It turns out that in some, specific situations musicians indeed do better than non-musicians.

I personally got very interested in the idea in how far ‘listening mode’, i.e. listening to the sound as if it is ‘language’ or ‘music’, might actually explain these differences. Are the differences a result of musicians attending to the sound (e.g., the intonation or timing pattern) instead of to the semantics, the meaning of the linguistic utterance? Future research will tell…

ResearchBlogging.orgSadakata, M., and Sekiyama, K. (2011). Enhanced perception of various linguistic features by musicians: A cross-linguistic study Acta Psychologica, 138 (1), 1-10 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.03.007