Category Archives: Testing

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?


I received a nice pingback on a recent post today on the Mind Over Music blog by Justin Yanowicz and Judy Crook. Having been in touch with Nina Krauss, the director of the work mentioned on my original post, and discovering that we will both be attending The Neurosciences and Music conference in June, today’s unexpected tie-in was further proof of the ease with which the internet can bring together those with a shared interest, connecting and amplifying learning.

What I liked in particular was their advice to delay cognitive ageing: “Speak several languages daily and keep playing your instrument.” Easier said than done or, as I like to say when pupils suggest insurmountability, “difficult, but not impossible.”

The end of remembering

As revision classes kick off in East Lothian schools, I chanced upon an interesting talk, on LSE podcasts, about learning and memory by science journalist, Joshua Foer – author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. Entitled The End of Remembering, this turned out not to be exactly the talk I was expecting. While the risks of outsourcing our memories and memorising skills to technology is certainly touched upon, there is more in the way of practical advice and theory of learning: Baker/baker paradox; spatial memory and mnemonics; cognitive/associative/autonomous phases of learning a skill (Fitts and Posner).

Although the mp3 of the talk lasts for 1:04:01, much of this is given over to questions. The talk lasts for 26 mins.
An interesting coining in the Q&A was artificial synaesthesia – choosing to summon up and make use of making use of the kind of associations about which synaesthetes have no choice.

You can download/listen to the talk here.

Free Will & Sight-Reading

Catching up with a podcast of Start The Week, I was delighted to be pointed in the direction of The Mysteries of the Brain – a series of programmes on BBC World Service by Professor Barry Smith.* In his discussions with Andrew Marr, he referred to experiments carried out by John-Dylan Haynes, which pointed to the illusory nature of free will. Volunteers were asked, repeatedly, to decided whether to press a button with their left or right hand while in an fMRI scanner. Evidence of brain activity, which enabled those reading output to predict with 100% accuracy which hand would be used, appeared up to 7 seconds before the volunteer was aware of their conscious choice. John-Dylan Haynes describes the situation as follows:

Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.
I couldn’t help wondering what kind of activity would be produced by someone sight-reading this:
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I wonder if, one day, we’ll have much more of a handle on what helps us turn a skill, with which we are not born, into a learned reflex and of ways in which this can be done more effectively. Perhaps until then we’ll need to content ourselves with the following equation:
10,000 hours = expert

You can listen again to Professor Smith’s series here.
You can see John-Dylan Haynes lecture on this material here.

* I first came across Professor Smith in an excellent episode of In Our Time on Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Indoor Channel Swim

Beginning on Monday, I intend to clock up the indoor swimming baths equivalent of swimming the Channel i.e. 35km. Raising money for Aspire, the event is scheduled to last 12 weeks – until 6 December. However, I hope to complete the challenge in 6 weeks. This will amount to 50 lengths-per-day, 5 days-per-week. Should I fall behind, there’s always the October week…….

Should you wish to donate, please visit my Just Giving page.

Music Matters

Increasingly, differences between some aspects of the real and virtual worlds feel virtually negligible – with one notable exception. Walking past the bookshelves in the hall, my eye is frequently caught by the spines of books I hope soon to read or re-read. Undeservedly neglected blogs seem to reach out less and I often return to one to find a treasure trove of fascinating reading/watching/listening/testing matter. One such is Music Matters* – a music cognition blog put together by Henkjan Honing of the University of Amsterdam.

This morning’s visit threw up the following topics:

How well would you do as an expert?

Can music cognition save your life?

Gene for music?

Although apparently published last week, this study was thrown my way by Hilery Williams last term!

Can you point at it?

Is beat induction special? (Part 5)

Does rhythm make our bodies move?

Infant-direct speech

* somewhat confusingly, this is also the name of weekly podcast in my feed-reader from the Radio 3 programme of the same name.