Saturday, November 23, 2013

Improvisation and Audience Engagement

This study suggests that a little improvisation in classical music might increase audience engagement.

An area of the brain known to be involved in sustained attention, working memory and the inhibition of responses, known as the Brodmann 9 area was much more active in both musicians and listeners during the improvised performances. This indicates that the audience were much more engaged when listening to classical music containing improvised elements.

This is really easy for me to believe, given my feeling professional musicians tend to make such a fetish out of sight reading they risk ending up sounding more mechanical than human. If you spend a lot of time sight reading, you're training your brain to play the surface of the music rather than feeling it. Of course, really fine players can play with feeling while sight reading, but not everyone is that good. 

The thing about improvisation, for better or worse, is that the player is creating the music in the moment, so is much more personally involved. My sense is that if more classical players improvised at least occasionally they would be reminded there's more to music making than simply playing what they see.

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Epigenetics continues to be just freaking nuts"

I stole the title of this post from the title of this post by Maggie Koerth-Baker over on Boing Boing, where she's sort of the science correspondent, and does a wonderful job of presenting new things from the hard sciences with proper caveats. Regular readers will know I've been posting on epigenetics for quite some time, as it upends what until now was accepted science all my life. Maggie's title and post do a great job of capturing how that feels.

We know that stressful experiences can have negative biological repercussions — not just for the people who experience the stress, but also for their children. Now, there's some evidence that this transfer of stress effects might not just be due to a simple case of PTSD changing the way you raise/treat your kids. In a study that's inspired both deep skepticism and jaw-dropping awe (both with good reason) scientists were able to train male mice to fear a specific smell — and then observe that same fear/stress response to the smell in the mice's children and grandchildren. This, despite the fact that the younger generations never had contact with their trained fathers. These results are crazy enough that you shouldn't take them as gospel. But they are hella interesting and will definitely lead to a lot more research as other scientists attempt to replicate them.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

More on Epigenetics

Here's a recent article on new findings in the study of epigenetics. Our DNA as inherited can be tweaked by our behavior/environment.

"DNA may shape who we are, but we also shape our own DNA," said press conference moderator Schahram Akbarian, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, an expert in epigenetics. "These findings show how experiences like learning or drug exposure change the way genes are expressed, and could be incredibly important in developing treatments for addiction and for understanding processes like memory."

Things have come a long way since Mendel and his peas. For me this new info is important in that there's the suggestion that your musical ability is not strictly constrained by your genetics.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Music in Brain Waves

Here's a story confirming something I posted on a while back - it's possible to identify what someone is listening to by their brain waves.

To find out, Boynton and his colleague Jessica Thomas had four volunteers listen to various notes, while they used fMRI to record the resulting neural activity. "Then the game is to play a song and use the neural activity to guess what was played," he says.

They were able to identify melodies like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star from neural activity alone, Boynton told the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, California, this week.

The article goes on to talk about how brain function and rhythm appear inter-related. 

David Poeppel at New York University and his colleagues monitored brain activity in 12 volunteers while they listened to three piano sonatas. One sonata had a quick tempo, with around eight notes per second, one had five per second, and the slowest had one note every 2 seconds.

The volunteers' brainwaves – rhythmic oscillations in the activity of neurons – tuned in to the frequency of the notes in the quick and medium-tempo pieces. In other words, if the melody contained eight notes per second, neural activity oscillated eight times per second. But with the slowest piece, neural activity reached two oscillations per second and went no lower.

Poeppel has previously shown that this tuning effect happens when we listen to a conversation: our neural oscillations correspond to the tempo of some signals in speech, such as the number of syllables per second.

The fact that the oscillations did not fall to match the tempo of the slow music suggests there is a minimum pace that the brain can process effectively.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Terry Teachout's almanac entry for today reads as follows:

"We are talking about an artist; and for the enjoyment of the artist the mask must be to some extent moulded on the face. What he makes outside him must correspond to something inside him; he can only make his effects out of some of the materials of his soul."

G.K. Chesterton, "The Dagger With Wings"

I'd say a vital aspect of music therapy is that the music you make must correspond to something inside you, and that the more you feel that connection, the more therapeutic your music making.

The quote also reminded me of the etymology of "persona" that I posted on a while back.

Another of TT's almanac entries from a while back gets at the professional (non-therapeutic) aspect of acting (and I would say music making as well).

"I very much disapprove of the adage that you have to feel the performance completely every night on the stage. This is technically an impossibility, and really is the negation of the art of acting. The art of acting, after all, is not actual feeling but simulation of feeling, and it is impossible to feel a strong emotional part eight performances a week, including two matinées."

Noël Coward, "The Art of Acting" (The Listener, Oct. 12, 1961)