Category Archives: Science

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.

YouTube Annotations

I’ve long believed that we learn a lot just by watching and copying – surely that’s how we evolved as a species? That’s certainly how tai chi chuan has been handed down.  A certain amount of dialogue and understanding is certainly necessary, but if watching and feeling the movements is not taking place then, experience tells me, various technical misapprehensions can arise.  Chancing upon the theory of mirror neurons strengthened this belief.

In that regard, it has crossed my mind that annotated videos might be a useful learning tool. By way of experimentation, I’ve added a couple to a video I made of a duo by Carulli which was to be performed by a couple of senior pupils. In each case I play one part while a laptop (using Sibelius) plays the other – not in the least expressive, but instructive. The annotations in this video aren’t instructive either – just a test run. They occur at 1:45 and 2:23.

Incidentally, I hit (accidentally) upon a keyboard short-cut which works with YouTube:

Home – returns the video to the beginning

End – shoots to the end

…and, of course, Right Cursor to jump forward – in handy-sized 17” chunks :-); Left Cursor for the reverse; Space bar to Pause and to Resume Playing.

p.s. I’ve noticed since writing this that these shortcuts only work if you’ve clicked on the video once (which will pause it, of course). I suppose it makes sense as, initially, these shortcuts are directed at the page as a whole. Clicking on the video seems to redirect these commands to the video itself. However, as you know, clicking on an embedded video, such as this, will simply redirect you to the source i.e. Youtube

p.p.s. see David Gilmour’s comment below for a link to further shortcuts

Does anyone know of any others?[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/8nE0n4oEgEc?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

A question of tone

One of the themes of this blog, if such a thing could be said to exist, is the endeavour to see music in its wider setting (society, culture), through exploring links with other disciplines (language, science). In that regard, I’m always grateful to receive invitations to talks in Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD).

On Tuesday 2nd November, I attended a talk by Professor Bob Ladd entitled Suprasegmantel phonemic distinctions in Dinka speech and song. The Dinka people form the largest ethnic grouping of Southern Sudan. Allow me to quote Professor Ladd’s own summary of Dinka song tradition:
Making and singing songs is an integral part of Dinka culture. Songs are used to chronicle all aspects of individual and communal experience: to tell stories, to insult rivals or enemies, to praise family or cattle, and so on. Songs are typically sung solo or in unison, accompanied (if at all) by clapping or simple drumming. Rhythm is generally a simple regular pulse, and song segments or phrases may be of different lengths with no overarching metrical structure. Scale is uniformly pentatonic.

For those who, like me, are interested in languages but are a little vague about the vocabulary of the science of linguistics, permit me to attempt to unpack the title of the talk – Suprasegmental phonemic distinctions in Dinka speech and song:
  • Segment – the individual sounds which make up speech
  • Phoneme – the smallest segment is known as a phoneme e.g. the word bad has one only syllable, but three phonemes: b – a – d
  • Suprasegmental – a phenomenon can be described as suprasegmental when it takes place over two or more segments e.g. prosody, tone, stress.
Professor Ladd described to us his work as part of a wider project – Metre and melody in Dinka speech and song . Specifically, he and his colleagues are exploring how a language which relies on musical phenomena (pitch, duration, timbre) for meaning is set to music. Do the two languages intuitively come together? Is there a clash of pitch and duration imperatives? If so, which one yields and when?
Three musical components of Dinka prosody (a Nilotic language) were featured:
  • Tone – there are four tone phonemes – high, low, rising, falling
  • Quantity – there are three lengths of vowel – short, medium & long
  • Voice Quality – there are two voice qualities – modal (normal voice) and breathy (somewhere along the journey from whispering to normal speaking)
The combination of these sound options, when mixed with seven possible vowel sounds, allows for 168 possibilities, most of which occur in regular usage. At first glance, it would be impossible to believe that such a spectrum could be reduced in any way without meaning being compromised.
One further feature essential to understanding the rhythmic aspect of setting of words to music is that most stems are monosyllabic – consonant-vowel-consonant or consonant-glide-vowel-consonant.
Here is some example of such singing:[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/lz6aPMsdY5I?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
Despite the many musical features of this language, it would seem that linguistic constraints are over-ridden by musical ones, without any obvious loss of understanding. Professor Ladd’s own parallel with this was that we can easily understand people when they whisper, despite the loss of pitch and timbre involved.
I found myself wondering whether – given the monosyllabic nature of the language, and the prevalence of the pentatonic scale – there was a tendency to align important words e.g. verbs with structural notes of the scale (do-mi-so) and less important words e.g. prepositions with the less important ones (re-la). It seems that this hasn’t (yet) been explored.
I found this a thoroughly engaging talk, not least because it made me realise how much we take for granted in the field of word setting. Possibly, this is because our culture is one which leaves word setting to experts. I look forward to discovering more about the project.

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:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/nuvzMq0YZ3k?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
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.

Mental muscle: six ways to boost your brain

Many will not find it surprising that the word “music” appears 23 times in this New Scientist article.

I found this paragraph especially interesting:

“Musically trained people perform better on tests of auditory memory – the ability to remember lists of spoken words, for example – and auditory attention. Children with a musical training have larger vocabularies and higher reading ability than those who do not (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 11, p 599). There is even some evidence that early musical training increases IQ (Psychological Science, vol 15, p 511).”

Alpha & Omega

A bit of a diversion from music/teaching here, but fascinating nonetheless. I caught today’s episode of Radio 4’s Case Notes en route home today where I heard, for the first time, a clear explanation of why Omega 3 fats are essential for the brain – for learning, memory, concentration and behaviour; how evolution played its part in our requiring them; what, if anything, supplements can do for us once we are formed. This topic begins at 11:00 in the broadcast which you can find here.

Just as I thought….

For years I have encouraged beginners occasionally to recite the names of notes aloud while playing. My feeling was this practice, annoying as it seems to be for them, encourages them to decide more quickly what they are going to play, resulting in their being able to keep up with the group. At any rate, the playing and reading both seem to improve from this practice.
I was heartened to read in an article entitled The Voice of Reason, in this week’s New Scientist, that there may be another reason for this – that naming improves categorisation, memorisation and, as a result, future recognition.
Many people would argue that they’d prefer to name the notes silently to themselves. The trouble is that they don’t notice when it stops – and neither does anyone else e.g. their teacher.
At the moment, the article, is not online but hopefully it will be at some point. One other estimated statistic is that “out loud” conversation accounts for only 30% of the verbal activity in our brain – this is self-generated verbal activity and does not refer to reading nor, as far as I understand, writing – just thinking and talking to ourselves.

First Day Back – First Aid

I’ve always believed it necessary remain a pupil if you hope to be a good teacher and the chance to be a pupil was offered today in the form of an excellent First Aid course.  Bobby Hall
of Hall First Aid Training, took 15 instrumental instructors through a variety of emergency first aid procedures in The Supper Room of The Brunton Hall.  Not only a highly experienced practitioner, Bobby struck me as a natural teacher.  The course was very hands-on and we were led to reflect on practical issues through intelligent and entertaining questioning.  Being a lover of language (and, if I’m honest, a tireless pedant) I was very taken with the precision of the language required for this subject, which strikes me as somewhere between a science and an art.
Another feature which impressed me was the gentle way in which some serious points were conveyed – particularly that we should not be crippled by remorse if an intervention does not result in the saving of a life.  It’s surely better to have done one’s best for a fellow human being than to have been helpless spectator, condemned forever to wondering “what if…?”
While I’m banging on about beliefs, let me restate how resonant I find the idea (which I came across in Clive JamesVisions Before Midnight) that the situations which benefit most from humour are serious ones.  You can see from the snaps below that we really enjoyed the day:
While chatting with Bobby at the end of the course, I asked him if there were YouTube resources worth visiting to refresh our bandaging skills.  He pointed out the problem that much of the material is from the USA where approaches and techniques differ from those here.  I suggested that he could upload some films on his own site. He wasn’t for biting but I hope that he might reconsider.  I’d be more than willing to help out with filming. For one thing, it would be a form of revision in itself.

Until then, though, we can make use of the book with which we were all presented at the end of the course: