Thursday, July 26, 2012

Interested in what's happening at ICMPC 12?

Vicky Williamson from Goldsmiths is a very active blogger on music cognition (besides being a creative researcher). If you want to follow what's currently happening at the ICMPC in Thessaloniki, Greece, see her wonderful blog at Almost every day a new entry appears on a selection of the five parallel sessions on a wide variety of topics related to music cognition and perception.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is replication an issue in music cognition?

This week the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC) is being held in Thessaloniki, Greece. A week long hunderds of researchers will present their latest work in a dense program with five parallel sessions and four keynotes. Slightly overdone perhaps, but it shows the still growing and international interest in music cognition as a research topic.

On the first day there will be a symposium on 'Replication'. By way of introduction below a blog entry that was originally published in May 2010:

"In the last few years Web-based experiments have become an attractive alternative to lab-based experiments. Next to the advantages of versatility and the ecological validity of the results, Web-based experiments can potentially reach a much larger, more varied and intrinsically motivated participant pool. Especially in the domain of music perception and cognition it is important to probe a wide variety of participants, with different levels of training and cultural backgrounds.

Nevertheless, to get research published that takes advantage of the Internet is not straightforward. An important reason for the conservatism held by some journals in publishing results obtained with Web-based experiments is the issue of replicability. Especially in the fields of experimental psychology and psychophysics there are serious concerns about the (apparent) lack of control one has in Web experiments as opposed to those performed in the laboratory. Where in the lab most relevant factors, including all technical issues, are under control of the experimenter (i.e. have a high internal validity) it is argued that Web experiments lack this important foundation of experimental psychology. As a result of the first issue, it often proves to be problematic to convince University Review Panels to give permission when there is little insight in the environment in which participants tend to do these experiments. As a result of the second issue, some high-impact journals made it a policy decision not to publish Web-based studies, as such discouraging Web experiments to be performed (cf. Honing & Reips, 2008). Nevertheless, it is important to stress that if an effect is found - despite the limited control in Web-based experiments over the home environment and the technological variance caused by the Internet - then the argument for that effect and its generalizability is even stronger.

The latter issue was recently discussed in an issue of Nature Methods by researchers from the Universities of Giessen and Münster, Germany (see reference below and [modified] figure above). In fact, the authors make the opposite argument! They argue that standardization should be seen as a cause of, rather than a cure for, poor reproducibility of experimental outcomes. Their study showed that environmental standardization can contribute to spurious and conflicting findings in the literature. Würbel and colleagues conclude that to generate results that are most likely going to be reproducible in other laboratories, the strategies to standardize environmental conditions in an experiment should be minimized.

As such the variance caused by Web-based setups (as discussed above) might actually amount to experimental results with a much higher external validity than thought before."

ResearchBlogging.orgRichter, S., Garner, J., Auer, C., Kunert, J., & Würbel, H. (2010). Systematic variation improves reproducibility of animal experiments. Nature Methods, 7 (3), 167-168. 10.1038/nmeth0310-167 Honing, H., & Reips, U.-D. (2008). Web-based versus lab-based studies: a response to Kendall (2008). Empirical Musicology Review, 3 (2), 73-77.

ResearchBlogging.orgSimmons, Joseph P., Nelson, Leif D., & Simonsohn, Uri (2011). False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417632

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What about the what, how, and where of auditory perception?

The last few days the 2nd Auditory Cognition Summer School was held in Plymouth, UK. Thirty enthusiastic students from a variety of backgrounds spent time (and still do so until tomorrow afternoon)  attending lectures, work groups and demonstrations is this new, emerging field.

Personally, I was quite impressed by the presentation of prof. Sophie Kertu Scott (UCL) yesterday. She discussed her work on speech perception, as well as her recent work on the neurobiology of audition. While I know her work from quite a while ago (RPPW 1994), she since then emerged as a true expert in the neuroscience of speech perception, situating our understanding of speech, space and auditory objects in the context of the basic neuroanatomy of the primate auditory system.

See a relative recent paper below, one that emphasizes the putative directions of the ‘what’,‘where’ and ‘how’ streams of processing in the human brain. Scott, Sophie K. (2005). Auditory processing — speech, space and auditory objects. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 15, 197-201. DOI: 10.1016/j.conb.2005.03.009

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What makes us musical animals?

From the ScienceDaily, July 6, 2012:

“In a forthcoming issue of Topics in Cognitive Science researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) argue that at least two, seemingly trivial musical skills can be considered fundamental to the evolution of music: relative pitch -- the skill to recognise a melody independent of its pitch level -- and beat induction -- the skill to pick up regularity (the beat) from a varying rhythm. Both are considered cognitive mechanisms that are essential to perceive, make and appreciate music, and, as such, could be argued to be conditional to the origin of music.

While it recently became quite popular to address the study of the origins of music from an evolutionary perspective, there is still little agreement on the idea that music is in fact an adaptation, that it influenced our survival, or that it made us sexually more attractive. Music appears to be of little use. It doesn't quell our hunger, nor do we live a day longer because of it. So why argue that music is an adaptation? There are even researchers who claim that studying the evolution of cognition is virtually impossible (Lewontin, 1998; Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009).

The alternative that Henkjan Honing and Annemie Ploeger of the UvA propose is, first, to distinguish between the notion of 'music' and 'musicality', with musicality being defined as a natural, spontaneously developing trait based on and constrained by our cognitive system, and music as a social and cultural construct based on that very musicality. And secondly, to collect accumulative evidence from a variety of sources (e.g., psychological, physiological, genetic, phylogenetic, and cross-cultural evidence) to be able to show that a specific cognitive trait is indeed an adaptation.

Both relative pitch and beat induction are suggested as primary candidates for such cognitive traits, musical skills that are considered trivial by most humans, but that turn out to be quite special in the rest of the animal world.

Once these fundamental cognitive mechanisms are identified, it becomes possible to see how these might have evolved. In short: the study of the evolution of music cognition is conditional on a characterisation of the basic mechanisms that make up musicality.”

[See also a version in French.]

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., & Ploeger, A. (2012). Cognition and the Evolution of Music: Pitfalls and Prospects Topics in Cognitive Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01210.x

Friday, July 06, 2012

If music isn’t a luxury, what is it?

The title of the newest and fourteenth book by science writer Philip Ball leaves no doubt: this is a counter-attack on claims made by Steven Pinker in his publications The Language Instinct (1994) and How the Mind Works (1997). Pinker characterised music as ‘auditory cheesecake’: a tasty bonus but, from an evolutionary point of view, no more than a by-product of much more important mental functions such as language (‘music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged’). In his books, Pinker also frequently reduces art to what – biologically speaking – is an irrelevant phenomenon, one that utilises functions that can be called ‘evolutionarily adaptive’, such as the experience of pleasure. The provocation these claims represented some fifteen years ago continues to resonate: countless books referring to Pinker have appeared since (among which The Art Instinct, The Belief Instinct and The Pleasure Instinct). And now, not entirely unexpectedly, here’s The Music Instinct. The aim is clear.

And so this book begins with a discussion of the importance of music, the possible role of music in evolution and the claim that music is not a luxury. It’s a topical discussion currently being pursued in numerous scientific journals and at symposia.

However, in The Music Instinct, Ball adopts a position that in fact declares the whole discussion a non-issue: music simply is (‘It might be genetically hard-wired, or it might not. Either way, we can’t suppress it, let alone meaningfully talk of taking it away’). This is an unfortunate and – given the book’s title – unusual strategy because there really is something to be said about the other views without dismissing them as irrelevant.

Nevertheless, I can only say how wholeheartedly I agree with Ball’s interpretation of the recent literature. I’m impressed by how easily a relative outsider – Ball has written nearly twenty books on topics related mostly to physics – has managed to grasp such a relatively new discipline as music cognition.

Ball passionately defends a number of very clear hypotheses, among which those that say music is more than just sound (‘Music does not somehow emerge from acoustic physics’), that it fundamentally differs from language (‘There is no language of music’) and that musicality is much more widespread than is commonly thought (‘Most of us are musical experts without knowing it’). These are insights each in their own right which only recently have been given an empirical basis and which offer alternative visions to the older, largely psycho-physically oriented research into the psychology of music.

On the whole, The Music Instinct is a convincing book. Ball clearly has a passion for music, as reflected in his detailed and often highly personal descriptions of his numerous music samples, taken primarily from the classical repertoire. But it remains regrettable that he places so much emphasis on the first half of the sub-title of the book – the architecture and effect of music – and thus focuses mainly on the music-theoretical aspects of music. The result is that much of what there is to be said today about the second half of the sub-title – the biological significance of music and why we can’t do without it – is neglected.

(For the complete review, see the reference below]

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (2012). If music isn’t a luxury, what is it? Journal of Music, Technology and Education,, 5 (1), 114-117 : 10.1386/jmte.5.1.109_5

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Is blogging not completely outdated?

Today (4th of July) I'm celebrating precisely six years of blogging on music cognition. While I was doubting whether this was a sensible idea at all in July 2006, and even more so last year, I'm currently really enjoying writing little snippits about research papers that I come across, forcing me to read these papers slightly better than I would do otherwise :-)

Thanks to all readers for their reactions and criticisms (today exactly 150!), and Psychology Today for supporting the publication of a selection of these blog entries for a more general audience.

I guess I should just keep going...

My home office :-)

ResearchBlogging.orgBatts, Shelley A., Anthis, Nicholas J., & Smith, Tara C. (2008). Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy. PLoS Biology, 6 (9), 240-245 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060240

Can we know the evolution of human cognition?

According to Dick Lewontin (evolutionary biologist, geneticist and social commentator) there is no way to know the evolution of cognition. He argued that we should ‘give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood. [..] It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.’ (Lewontin, 1998:130)

In the study of the evolution of music cognition, we will have to take into account this critique. So, do we better stop right now, or is there a way to deal with this criticism? (See also Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009.)

While it became quite popular to address music cognition from an evolutionary perspective, there is still little agreement on the idea that music is in fact an adaptation, that it influenced our survival or that it made us sexually more attractive. Music appears to be of little use. It doesn’t quell our hunger, nor do we live a day longer because of it, so why arguing that music is an adaptation?

Are there indeed no arguments to show that music has played a more direct and shaping role in man’s evolutionary development? Or should music be considered as a sexually selected trait, a trait that evolved to attract partners rather than to improve survival chances? Or is music, as Pinker suggested, no more than a pleasant side effect of more important functions, such as speech and language?

Recently a number of interesting papers appeared (see references below) on the possibilities and impossibilities (Heyes, 2012; part of a special issue by The Royal Society dedicated to this topic) and the prospects and pitfalls of studying the evolution of cognition, music cognition being no exception (Honing & Ploeger, 2012; Marcus, 2012).

See also the Science Daily. Heyes, C. (2012). New thinking: the evolution of human cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367 (1599), 2091-2096 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0111

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., & Ploeger, A. (2012). Cognition and the Evolution of Music: Pitfalls and Prospects Topics in Cognitive Science, 4 (4), 513-524 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01210.x Marcus, G. (2012). Musicality: Instinct or Acquired Skill? Topics in Cognitive Science, 4 (4), 498-512 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01220.x