Category Archives: Radio Links

Listen Ear

Yesterday’s edition of The Material World on Radio 4 featured a fascinating discussion on how the brain processes sound. Presented by the mercurial Quentin Cooper* the guests – Jan Schnupp from the University of Oxford and Sophie Scott from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience – discussed:

  • how we select which sounds merit our concentration in a noisy environment
  • how, through the one-dimensional information supplied by compressed airwaves hitting the ear drum, we detect location, distance, whether the source is moving and, if so, in which direction**
  • how 20 millisecond chunks seem to be the choice of the brain for both auditory and visual processing – the constant refreshment of sound and vision gives us the illusion of a continuum
  • foreign accent syndrome
  • which parts of the brain become active when an impressionist is conjuring up the sound of of another person – or when a person is selecting different registers of the voice

The last of these topics is something we use so naturally in teaching that it is taken for granted:

  • the tone used to gently nudge someone back on task
  • the slightly more emphatic one used to highlight that what’s being said is a reminder and not the first mention
  • the increased intensity which suggests that the behaviour is becoming an issue
  • the complete re-orchestration required if we realise that there is a perfectly valid and blame-free source of distraction

You can download the programme here (the item begins halfway through the broadcast).

Further reading:
Sophie Scott working with impressionist Duncan Wiseby

Times article on accents etc.

Science Daily article on work by Jan Schnupp on the auditory cortex which could lead to improvements in hearing aids of speech recognition systems

Science Daily article on how we concentrate on one voice in a noisy room

More on the millisecond chunking of sound and the effects of silence, white noise and reversal of those chunks on perception

* “For me science isn’t a subject, it’s a perspective.”

** This process, for me, becomes more fascinating when considering that stereo hi-fi products essentially strive to create the illusion of what is already an illusion.

Playing from memory

In the Music Matters special on Music & Health one of the guests, Dr John Zeisel, claimed that music attacks The Four A words associated with Alzheimers – agitation, aggression, anxiety & apathy. Aware that the study of dysfunction often enhances awareness of function, I soon began to wonder whether music (specifically the study of music) has the potential similarly to benefit those not affected by that particular disease. All of us experience elements of the above conditions at some time or other – perhaps never more so than during our teenage years. I’m inclined to believe that any activity which heightens awareness of surroundings at the expense of that of the self is bound to help.

I learned one new term in this broadcast – retrogenesisthe degenerating mind’s equivalent of a common response to staffing cutbacks i.e. last in – first out – or rather – first in – last out. It seems that music has been hard-wired for so long in our evolution that it outlasts many other abilities. This disposition to longevity seems also to be due to its reliance on procedural as opposed to declarative memory.

Sergio della Sala’s video contributions to LTS stress that memories are recreated dynamically as opposed to being accessed from an unchanging archive. This certainly resonates with how I feel when playing music by memory (which constitutes the majority of occasions) and also with what pupils describe of their experiences of memorising music. If pressed, one could name the pitches, durations, harmonies, concepts etc. – but it seems so much easier just to play it!


One of the more interesting features to emerge from the New Scientist (NS) special The Roots of Music was an article on amusia. Like many people, I had imagined this simply to mean the inability to carry a tune or to perceive changes in pitch and rhythm. However, researching further in a listen again edition of BBC Radio 4’s Frontiers I began to appreciate how annoying the omnipresence of music in our society might be for sufferers. What, to the majority, must seem like easily filterable background music in pubs, shops etc. must constitute little more than an irritating clatter – perhaps something like trying to think or have a conversation in a noisy hotel kitchen.

It is thought that around 4% of the population are amusic. This could amount to more than 50 people in a large school – perhaps some on the staff – perhaps some in the Music Department 🙂

At the bottom of the NS article was an invitation to take part in an online test. Why not log on and try for yourself? It consists of listening to two playings of short tunes and deciding if they were the same or different. I was interested in taking part see whether it might be possible to simulate what it must be like for the P5 pupils who undergo an aural test at the start of each session.*

However, I quickly found my lengthy experience of processing music made it impossible for me to hear the tests in the same way that a beginner or an amusic person might. I realised that just a few notes into the first playing of each test I was unconsciously encoding the sounds – specifically the tonality (key) and metre (pulse and rhythmic groupings). This gave me something more concrete with which to compare the second playing. However, there were a couple of examples which were sufficiently up-tempo, irregular and lengthy to feel quite challenging.

I’ve often been struck by this educational paradox – the more proficient you become in your chosen field, the more difficult it becomes truly to appreciate what those who struggle with it really feel.

* In August of 2006 I wrote 5 posts on the testing process for instrumental instruction: 1   2   3   4   5

Facts, Maestro, Facts.

It’s always disappointing when someone you admire comes out with something which seems like nonsense. Yesterday’s in-car disillusionment came courtesy of Daniel Barenboim in an interview with Tom Service on Radio 3’s Music Matters. Barenboim (65) is in London to perform the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas from memory – a mammoth undertaking at any age and to give talks on the theme of The Artist As Leader. His pedigree is impressive: a performing and recording musician; educator and bridge builder (he is co-founder – along with Edward Said – of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of young musicians from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Israel; author of the 2006 Reith Lectures.

During the course of the interview (about 19 mins into the programme) Barenboim, at pains to stress that music is part of life as opposed to an ornamental extra, lamented the state of music education in schools in Europe and America. He argues passionately (almost aggressively)and persuasively for the humanising effect of music and, while it’s not clear exactly what would constitute his ideal system, I cannot accept his claim that “we don’t have music education in schools.” Taking offence always seems pointless as it soon wears off, leaving you with what would have been a better starting point – questioning the research which informed the remark. Has Mr. Barenboim been to a school concert in the Lothians area? Has he visited a department?

In-car entertainment

Assuming you’re not already in school by 8.02, may I suggest enriching your journey with a daily Prelude & Fugue by Bach. Radio 3 will be playing one every day until Jan 17th. The music is drawn from Bach’s two volumes of The Well Tempered Clavier known affectionately as The 48. These works, written in celebration of the development of equal temperament are regarded by many as the apotheosis of contrapuntal writing (an Int 2 concept – look it up here).

The Radio 3 site features a timeline with audio examples of Bach’s works through his life. The final, haunting item on this timeline features the last written bars of The Art of Fugue (a Higher Music concept – look it up here). Sadly, on the 28th of July 1750, Bach finished his life before he finished this work. The music simply stops….

The origins of music

Only one thing rivals caffeinated drinks in warding off the healthy amount of sleep promised by an early night, and that’s thought-provoking listening on the radio. Aware that the Christmas concert season’s 14-hour days kick off tomorrow, I spotted with a mixture of delight and foreboding a potentially fascinating programme on Radio 3 this evening entitled In The Beginning Was The Song. It’s ambition is to explore the reason for music’s existence. Current views range from “a useless by-product of evolution” (Steven Pinker) to “a vitally important faculty that helped humanity to flourish” (Steven Mithen). In case you’re beginning to think that you have to be called Steven to get in on this programme, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s presented by Ivan Hewitt, who is pictured in the first of four still photographs taken during the programme’s production.