Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Brazilian bird singing like Mozart?

About a week ago the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant published an article with the title 'Braziliaanse vogel zingt een lied van het niveau Mozart' ('Brazilian bird sings a song of Mozart-level quality'). Several friends send me links via the social media (Thanks, keep on doing that!) because of my interest in what makes us musical animals. Is this striking new evidence? Or another case of anthropomorphism?

Well, let's first listen to a recording of the bird under discussion: the musician wren (Cyphorhinus arada).

Many studies on the origins of music concern the question of what defines music. Can birdsong be considered music? In trying to answer this question, it is important to separate the notions 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.

However, it is still a challenge to demarcate precisely what makes up this trait we call musicality. What are the cognitive mechanisms that are essential to perceive, make and appreciate music? Only when we have identified these fundamental mechanisms are we in a position to see how these might have evolved. In other words, the study of the evolution of music cognition is conditional on a characterization of the basic mechanisms that make up musicality.

Other studies are concerned with thinking about the question what we share with other animals in terms of musicality. And indeed, no matter how we would like it to be different, we are repeatedly reminded that we have more similarities to nonhuman animals than differences. However, we must be careful in calling birdsong music. We make this mistake more often. We, the human listeners, perceive the sounds made by songbirds as music. Whether these other animals also do that is unclear. And that makes a world of difference.

Musician wren (Cyphorhinus arada)
The study mentioned about a week ago in the Volkskrant was published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, a relatively new online journal promoting collaborations between the humanities and the sciences (N.B. dated Spring 2012).

If you read the paper, you will see that the authors confirm earlier findings that were discussed on this blog as well. For instance, the study that appeared in Animal Behavior (Araya-Salas, 2012) on the song of a nightingale wren, a species belonging to the same family as the musician wren. In that study ecologist Marcelo Araya-Salas (New Mexico State University) shows that the resemblance between a nightingale wren's song and music is nothing more than a coincidence. In the Doolittle & Brumm (2012) study similar results are reported. They also conclude that it is because 'human listeners from a variety of musical cultures are used to hearing these intervals as frames or anchors, we are likely to perceive many passages of musician wren songs not as series of disjunct notes but as musical units.' (Doolittle & Brumm, 2012:80).

Despite the beauty of birdsong, it’s again an example that when we call something music we’re projecting our own biases. Nothing wrong with that at all, but good to realize.

Nevertheless, from a scientific perspective, one way of avoiding this common pitfall is to focus on the actual, far more challenging question: is it music to them? (cf. Honing, 2013). More on that later...

ResearchBlogging.orgDoolittle, E.  & Brumm, H. (2012). O Canto do Uirapuru: Consonant intervals and patterns in the song of the musician wren. Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies, 6 (1), 55-85. [online advance publication 15 October 2013]

 ResearchBlogging.orgAraya-Salas, M. (2012). Is birdsong music? Evaluating harmonic intervals in songs of a Neotropical songbird Animal Behaviour, 84 (2), 309-313. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.04.038

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (2013). Op zoek naar wat ons muzikale dieren maakt. Free iBook (voorpublicatie).

P.S. In the context of earlier discussions on tuning systems (e.g., see earlier  blog entry): this study suggests that we might actually not be so sensitive to tuning as we might think.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Can't get it out of your head?

Imagine listening to a catchy tune. When do you nod your head and sing along? That's the hook, the most memorable part of the song, crafted by songwriters to stick in your head and exploited by DJs to get people onto the dance floor. Everyone knows a hook when they hear it, but scientists don't know why.

#Hooked was launched this week at Manchester Science Festival and will run until September 2014. During the Festival people can contribute their catchiest songs and stories to build the playlist and scientists will debate the science of what makes music catchy, from hooks, to earworms and hit songs. There will be a silent disco and shows about music with ‘Captain Hooked’ (see website for more details). Nominations for the playlist (which runs across all musical genres) will continue in the run up to the launch of the #Hooked game in early 2014.

#Hooked is an ambitious initiative of Dr Erinma Ochu, funded by a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowship. She did an amazing job in bringing lots of people together as well as initiating a series of activities at the Manchester Science Museum around the simple idea of finding out what makes music catchy, an idea with a potential outreach far beyond that of basic music cognition research. The hooked-game will be launched in the Spring of 2014. And, if you can't wait, you can do the Hooked questionaire here or nominate your favorite song here.

Why does this matter? Well, the experiment is all about musical memory and as such might provide insights into long term memory and even failing memory, which could contribute to future Alzheimer's disease research. See video below for further motivation:

Click here to Participate!