Category Archives: Science

Sight-reading and expectation

I recently took part in some interesting research in that intriguing Venn diagram intersection of music/language/psychology.

To ensure that the tests weren’t skewed by knowledge of what was being studied (so called Observer Effect) I simply followed instructions and asked later. Basically I sat at a piano keyboard prepared to sight-read various short musical samples for right hand only. My eyes were tracked so that the researcher could see exactly what I looked at and for how long.
One thing which became clear was that I looked down at my hands too often, even although there was a square on Middle C and a thin Blue Tack ridge on the G above that. The span of notes involved was a 13th ( from the G below Middle C to the E above the next C up).
Once it was all over, it was explained to me that the research was looking to see whether our eyes would linger over odd and incongruous moments the way they do when we read language. For example, “the cat sat on the sat” will, unless you are a modernist poet, make your eyes linger on the final word, which doesn’t, in any conventional sense really “fit”. Musical equivalents included, for example, an excerpt in the key of D in which the sharps which qualified it as ‘being in D’ were cancelled by natural signs. Interestingly, the weren’t many rhythmically weird moments – probably because that would have made the reading tricky. What was being sought was our reaction to oddness – not difficulty.
When I find out more about the results I will ( with the blessing of the researcher) post more.

Music and Cognitive Ability

Honest debate impels me to include points of view which do not match my own. In this regard here is an article in which it it stated that parents who invest in music lessons for their children, in the hope of improved academic ability, are wasting their money. Whether or not you agree with this does not change the fact that having instrumental lessons, not through love of music, but in the hope of improving other abilities does seem an odd approach – why not just study harder?

Music and the Brain

I’ve lately become a great fan of the slightly inelegantly named webiste, Brainpickings. Today they posted on Facebook (don’t knock it – it’s not all egotism) a list of 7 Essential Books on Music, Emotion and the Brain. I feel that two titles have been unfairly omitted: Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body and Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature – both of these links lead to lead to Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature.

Bilingualism – and also music…

I’ve always felt somewhat cool towards the oft-quoted links between Music & Maths, feeling that Music has more in common with Language(s). As neuroscience reveals an equal amount of our intuitions to have been either true or misguided, I was pleased to see this article about some recent research led by Nina Kraus – one of the most engaging speakers at last June’s Music/Neuroscience conference hosted by Edinburgh University. It suggests that bilingualism – and music –  are advantageous when it comes to processing sound. Much of this comes to being able to block our distractions – increasingly necessary in our busy world.


I recently came across two interesting posts on creativity. One from the excellent site, Brain Pickings, features a video of a talk by John Cleese. It features the attention-grabbing phrase, ‘Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.’

The other, an article by Jonah Lehrer, is entitled The neuroscience of Bob Dylan’s GeniusI’ve never been a fan of Dylan but it’s a very interesting piece on the creative process.

On my reading lists which, by now, stretches further than years left to me on Earth, is Lehrer’s Proust Was A Neuroscientist.

Happy Birthday Heinrich

If you are a guitarist then today is the day joyously to play D# – string 4, fret 1. The reason to celebrate the 155th birthday of Heinrich Rudolph Hertz (1857-94), the man after whom the calibration of pitch frequency is named. That D# (the one below Middle C)  is the nearest note to 155 Hz.

1 Hz = 1 cycle per second – that is to say that the D# in question makes the air vibrate 155 times per second.

Orchestras in the west tune to A  = 440 Hz, with the exception of the French who prefer 444 Hz.

But the situation has not always been stable. Harpsichords in the Baroque were tuned to A = 415 Hz; some organs were tuned to A = 465 Hz. The French preferred 398 Hz.

Human hearing range is 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz).

The range of a piano is 27.5 Hz (no point in going much lower) to 4186 Hz (we could perceive notes which are much higher than this, but would we enjoy them?)

Music, language and hearing (or not)

There’s really much, much more to this video by Charles Limb than the couple of points I’m about to select but here goes….

There is a very clear depiction, at 06:15, of the difference of range of frequencies (Hz) and level (dB) in music and language.

There is also an interesting demonstration, at 07:07, of how those of us with normal hearing take pitch perception for granted – compared to cochlear implant patients, whose perception can be out by as much as two octaves[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

There is also a very interesting talk on neuroscience and musical improvisation by the same author here – look out for great demo of piano improvisation by Keith Jarret at 01:15 – including some nice ‘outside playing‘ at 02:08 [kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]



The Science of Sound

If you like the mix of music/sound and science – plus a bit of comedy – why not listen to this episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage?

The programme features Professor Brian Cox; Robin Ince; University of Salford’s acoustic expert Professor Trevor Cox; neuroscientist Professor Chris Plack; violinist Julian Gregory; comedian and former acoustics student Tom Wrigglesworth.

Topics covered include major/minor-happy/sad correlation; why some sounds fill us with horror; acoustics of concert halls; musical intervals and maths/ratios – including the tritone also known as Diabolus in Musica (The Devil in Music).

Neuroscience and Education

I was pleased to see the topic of neuroscience and education make an appearance in Radio 4’s Brain Season. Tuesday’s crepuscular drive home was brightened up by the second of Matthew Taylor‘s 3-part series Brain Culture: Neuroscience & Society.

This particular episode touched on such topics as early years (stimulation – or lack thereof) and use of games in the classroom. What grabbed my attention the most, however, was when the conversation turned to praise and self-esteem. There was the suggestion that praising young people for being clever may not help them when they hit a wall as much as praising them for effort. *

You can hear the programme here (and there seems to be no suggestion of the usual removal date).

* ps the day after posting this I came across the following quote from @greatestquotes on Twitter

“It’s not that I’m so smart , it’s just that I stay with problems longer .” – Albert Einstein

Nearing the end…

…of term – quite a busy week with two excellent evening of Oliver at Wallyford Primary School and MGS Prize Giving. Tomorrow sees some former pupils of Wallyford returning to the school to play in the Leavers’ Ceremony – always a nice occasion.

In the meantime, I just received the latest Neuromusic newsletter, which features the programme (with abstracts) of the recent Neurosciences and Music conference. There’s a lot of text here but very interesting:

Have a great summer everyone and thanks for looking in.