Category Archives: Life

Music and Memory

Does a life of active involvement in music bestow enhanced memory – more able to withstand the ravages of age? Nina Kraus of the Audio Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Illinois certainly believes so. Why not listen to a short conversation she had with Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM? Scroll forward to 27:50 of this?

The website of the Audio Neuroscience Laboratory is a treasure trove of interesting material.

There is an interesting paragraph about the effects of music on the brain here

Also – have a look at this slide show about the brain’s encoding of music and speech – or the slide show about speech in noise.

There are also three interesting videos on the site:


Having recently attended Music: An Explanation by a Guitar Hero, which concluded with some deliberations on prosody (the music of speech which amplifies meaning), I chanced upon an inspirational TED talk by film critic, Robert Ebert, who lost his lower jaw, and his speech, through cancer.

Exploring text-to-speech technology, he found that, unless he entered very time-consuming XML coding, the prosody was never quite right. Work is currently in progress with Edinburgh-based company, CereProc to refine his voice, using recorded material from Ebert’s television archive. Exploring their site, I was quite astonished at how far along the speech synthesis road things have travelled. You can hear some of their voices here or type in your own text and choose a voice here. While CereProc finish their refinements, Ebert is using Apple’s Alex voice.

It is very touching to see how Ebert responds during the talk. The words are his own but his wife and two other close friends help out with reading. Despite the fact that the oral delivery is at one remove, he gestures as though delivering the words personally.

Let me, once again, flag up some interesting lectures on prosody by Peter Roach.

Music: An Explanation by a Guitar Hero

Better late than never? Having been on holiday I’m a little late with this short write-up of an Edinburgh International Science Festival event but, as it was so good, here goes.

Dr. Mark Lewney is a physicist and a guitarist. Last year I went to his excellent Rock Guitar in 11 Dimensions and reviewed it here. This year he presented Music: An Explanation by a Guitar Hero – a look at the physics underlying sound/music. Without wishing to spoil the show for those who may have the chance to see it later, let me say that he took us on an engaging journey from the sine wave – through the world of harmonics (overtones), the importance of the fundamental, 4th and 5th notes, the short step from there to the pentatonic scale, which is used in folk musics across the world – notably in the blues.

He finished the talk with some thoughts on music’s purpose in our evolution – the topic of much debate – such as from 2:24 – 7:03 in this video). One thing is clear, though: prosody (the music of speech) matters – it’s not just what you say it’s how you say it.

This was an excellent, funny and informative presentation. This cross-curricular take on life is, I feel, at the heart of CfE.

You can see Mark Lewney in action in YouTube videos here.

My further explorations on prosody took me here to a fascinating series of lectures by Peter Roach


I forgot to mention one of the most elucidating facts of the evening – and one of the simplest. 

When non-musicians ask musicians why orchestras need conductors, there are many common answers: 

  • apart from waving the baton, the conductor is the person who has led rehearsals and is in charge of the interpretation
  • orchestral players can end up sitting many metres away from their colleagues and it’s hard to hear – conductors can ensure the overall balance and timing of the group
  • the conductor is the fore-runner of drummer and mixing desk

 However, Mark Lewney’s audience participation illustration was much better and more direct and more memorable. He asked the audience to clap to a beat which, having started, he left in our hands – with out eyes shut. The timing soon began to drift. He asked us to open our eyes and sync with him. The timing improved. Closing our eyes again, the timing deteriorated. Opening them, and following his lead, we were back in sync. The reason? Light travels approximately 874,000 times faster than sound*. Relying on the sound, we had to wait for it to bounce off the back wall of the hall. Syncing to the beat, we were exactly in time.

 * Speed of sound

  •  343.2 metres per second
  • 1,236 kilometres per hour
  • 768 miles per hour

 Speed of light 

  • 299,792,458 metres per second
  • 1,079,000,000 kilometres per hour
  • 671,000,000 miles per hour

The Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning and Memory

Today I received formal acknowledgement of enrolment in a conference entitled: The Neurosciences and Music IV: Learning and Memory,

Organised by the Fondazione Mariani in conjunction with Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, the conference will take place in Edinburgh from 9 – 12 June. As part of what I see as payback for the investment in my attendance there, I intend to post write-ups of relevant content, for the benefit of pupils, colleagues and other interested parties.

Some of the highlights of the conference include:

Impact of musical experience on cerebral language processing – Mathias Oechslin (Chair), Geneva, Switzerland

Why would musical training benefit language functions? A neurobiological perspective? – Aniruddh Patel, San Diego, USA

Memory and learning in music performance – Caroline Palmer and Peter Pfordresher (Chairs)

Keynote lecture – Human memory – Alan Baddeley, York, UK

The functional architecture of Working Memory for tones and phonemes in non-musicians and musicians with and without absolute pitch – Stefan Koelsch, Berlin, Germany

Learning and memory in musical disorders – Psyche Loui and Isabelle Peretz (Chairs)

Leonard Bernstein

A post of John Connell‘s some time ago about polymaths encouraged me to wonder if I regarded anyone in such a light. I immediately thought of pianist, conductor, composer, linguist, educator, broadcaster Leonard Bernstein. Imagine my surprise when I chanced upon his appearance in Radio 4’s biographical programme Great Lives. He’d been chosen as this week’s subject by Charles Hazlewood – in many ways a similar character – who, within a few moments, described Bernstein as a polymath!

If you are interested in connections between music and language, I can think of no better place to explore than Bernstein’s Norton Lectures.

You can hear the programme here

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.

Gateshead Granny Cloud

I always felt that Martyn Lewis was unfairly pilloried in 1993 for opining that there should be more good news on the news. Is news meant to be a reflection of life, or merely a litany of human failing?

I caught an interesting story (in the car, as always) on Radio 4’s new technologies programme, Click On yesterday which typified, for me, the type of under-reported philanthropic instinct to which I suspect Lewis was referring. Chasing the idea today, I found the following video on YouTube which explains the story. You also get to see what must be a unique three-word sentence: Gateshead Granny Cloud:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

The originator of the idea, Sugata Mitra, explains a little more fully here on TED:

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