Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wat is het geheim van de Sacre du Printemps? [Dutch]

Afgelopen weekend zond de NTR op NPO 2 een live televisieprogramma rond de NPO Radio 4 Hart & Ziel Lijst uit. Bezielde verhalen over klassieke muziek en antwoorden op de vraag waarom en hoe luisteraars zich laten raken door klassieke muziek.

Wat is het geheim van het ritme van de Sacre du Printemps, wat maakt Erbarme dich een tranentrekker? Ook verhalen van luisteraars kwamen aan bod. Waarom kun je zo goed hard autorijden met het Vioolconcert van Philip Glass op de autoradio? Of hoe kan het dat de sonates van Scarlatti voor altijd verbonden zijn met het lezen van een Russische roman?

De uitzending is terug te zien op Uitzending gemist.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Hooked on music: What makes music catchy?

Presentation of hooked-game at the Science Museum in August 2014.

Everyone knows a hook when they hear one, but scientists don’t know why. By playing the Hooked on Music game you are exploring the science of songs and helping us to unlock what makes music catchy.

#HookedonMusic is a citizen science experiment involving the Manchester Science festival, produced by the Museum of Science & Industry in association with the University of Amsterdam. In devising an online game for all to enjoy, we try to harness the wisdom of the crowd to understand and quantify the effect of catchiness on musical memory. Explore the game here.

Presentation of hooked-game at the Science Museum in August 2014.

For more information on #HookedonMusic see the About on
For more online experiments see MCG website.

ResearchBlogging.orgJ.A. Burgoyne, D. Bountouridis, J. van Balen, & H. Honing (2013). Hooked: A Game for Discovering What Makes Music Catchy. Proceedings of the 14th International Society for Music Information Retrieval Conference, 245-250. Curitiba, Brazil.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Do chimps like to listen to African and Indian music?

©2014, Emory University.
This week an interesting study, co-authored by primatologist Frans de Waal, appeared online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition. It was summarized in a Press Release as follows:
“While preferring silence to music from the West, chimpanzees apparently like to listen to the different rhythms of music from Africa and India, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.” 
While the first part of this summary must be wrong (the study did not present any Western music to chimpanzees, neither did any other study), the study does provide intriguing evidence for a difference in preference between West-African and North Indian music on the one hand, and Japanese taiko music and silence on the other. Chimps apparently prefer the former sounds in their environment over the latter.

The paper is framed as a critical answer to an older study by McDermott and Hauser (2007) that showed nonhuman primates (i.e., cotton-top tamarins and marmosets) to prefer slow tempos and silence over music, but dislike music overall. But are these studies also an indicator of musical preference?

Here Frans de Waal is clear and precise:
“Our objective was not to find a preference for different cultures’ music. We used cultural music from Africa, India and Japan to pinpoint specific acoustic properties. Past research has focused only on Western music and has not addressed the very different acoustic features of non-Western music. While nonhuman primates have previously indicated a preference among music choices, they have consistently chosen silence over the types of music previously tested.” 
So the different stimuli were in fact used to test a sensitivity to a complex of acoustic properties. Because if one would like to test a musical preference, one needs to know what the chimps are listening for. Is it loudness, timbre, melody, rhythm, timing, etc.

Unfortunately the stimuli are not provided online, or described in such a way that the original recordings can be traced, very much against the notion of replicability common in most empirical research. Hence, we can not listen to them for ourselves or run computer algorithms to extract the musical and/or acoustic features for comparison. We have to do with a rather crude characterization of the stimuli (For example, the 'Japanese taiko stimulus' is characterized as atonal, with undefined pitch, and 1 strong beat per 1 weak beat) and guess what the acoustical differences were. Yet another strange detail: some of the music was slowed down artificially, this to bring all stimuli in the same tempo range. A peculiar transformation that humans would readily notice (see earlier entry).

The authors themselves have an intuition on what might have caused the difference. They make the observation that Japanse taiko (like Typical Western music) has a regular beat, and it might be that this regularity is what chimpanzees dislike:
“Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects” 
Sounds reasonable, not?

Well, the experiment was not designed such that it could show that it is indeed the rhythmic structure that these chimps were attending to. In fact, there is no convincing evidence as yet that chimpanzees, or any other nonhuman primate, can actually perceive rhythmic regularity (See earlier entry).

Although it is suggested that apes (as opposed to monkeys) might have some of the neural circuitry that is needed for beat perception (Merchant & Honing, 2014), it has never been shown that any of the great apes can perceive the beat in a rhythmically varying stimulus such as music (See discussion in earlier blogs on the topic of beat induction).

What has been shown, however, is that monkeys can be sensitive to the rhythm structure or rhythmic grouping (cf. Merchant & Honing, 2014). Hence it is more likely that it is the rhythmic structure (or rhythmic grouping) that the chimpanzees use to distinguish between the musical stimuli, instead of perceived regularity: the beat. Nevertheless, it could also be any of those many other features of music that makes the difference for them: dynamic contour, timbre, note density, melodic contour, timing, etc, etc.

[See related item in Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.]
[See related item in Psychology Today.]

ResearchBlogging.orgMingle, M., Eppley, T., Campbell, M., Hall, K., Horner, V., & de Waal, F. (2014). Chimpanzees Prefer African and Indian Music Over Silence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition DOI: 10.1037/xan0000032

ResearchBlogging.orgMerchant, H., & Honing, H. (2014). Are non-human primates capable of rhythmic entrainment? Evidence for the gradual audiomotor evolution hypothesis. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7 (274) 1-8. DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00274.

ResearchBlogging.orgMcDermott, J., & Hauser, M. (2007). Nonhuman primates prefer slow tempos but dislike music overall Cognition, 104 (3), 654-668 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2006.07.011

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Interested in becoming a student assistant at MCG?

The Music Cognition Group (MCG) searches for an enthusiastic and well-organized personal assistant (PA) for the Academic Year 2014/15. For more information and detailed instructions on how to apply see here. Deadline for applications is 15 August 2014.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

How a Californian sea lion made my day

© 2014 C. Reichmuth, NMFS marine mammal research permit 14535.
Please do not use photograph without permission.

It is around 11 AM when I arrive at the Institute of Marine Sciences, Long Marine Laboratory, University of California Santa Cruz, USA. I will meet with dr Colleen Reichmuth and her team, who kindly invited me to observe some of the running audition and animal cognition experiments they do with pinnipeds. Her lab is the only one of its kind in the world, and well known for its inventive and high-quality research with sea mammals, both in the lab and in the field. 

I'm especially interested in meeting Ronan, the Californian sea lion that lives here since she was 1 year old (now being 6 years of age). She became close to a celebrity after a study that was carried out by Peter Cook at Reichmuth's lab in 2012. Unfortunately, Cook left recently for a postdoc elsewhere, so I didn't expect to see Ronan performing her amazing skills. However, Colleen Reichmuth, Jenna Lofstrom and Andrew Rouse surprised me with a demonstration of the original setup as described in Cook et al. (2013)!

While Ronan didn't perform the experiment for more than a year, she was on top of it, to say the least. The sound of a metronome at different rates – from approx. 80 to 120 BPM– was promptly picked-up and synchronized to. Within two (or max. three) metronome clicks Ronan was in sync and sticked to the beat: Performing much better than the average human, I would say. Also with real music (the Boogie Wonderland example mentioned in an earlier blog) she had little difficulty to stay in sync with the beat of the music. After seeing Ronan perform, and in addition to the carefully controlled experiments presented in the 2013 paper that were convincing by themselves, there is no doubt whatsoever that this active animal is sensitive to the explicit or induced regularities in sound and music. The intriguing question that remains is: why do we (humans) share this capability with Californian sea lions, and not with other primates that are far more closely related?

After the demonstration I was introduced to Ronan. She behaved like a rising star: patiently posing and even presenting a kiss on my cheek! A human is easily cheated..., but she made my day.

N.B. The lab is currently exploring the vocal learning capabilities of Ronan in light of the vocal learning hypothesis that suggests that only animals with this trait are capable of rhythmic entrainment (see earlier entry). However, this has never been shown in Californian sea lions (Zalophus californianus) as yet. I'm sure more exciting papers from this lab will follow soon!

See also blog at Psychology Today. Cook, P., Rouse, A., Wilson, M., & Reichmuth, C. (2013). A California Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus) Can Keep the Beat: Motor Entrainment to Rhythmic Auditory Stimuli in a Non Vocal Mimic. Journal of Comparative Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0032345 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nattevingerwerk? [Dutch]

NRC Handelsblad Opinie (20 mei 2014)
Afgelopen weekend verscheen er een column in het NRC met de titel Natte Vinger, via de sociale media aangekondigd als een “column over ons gretige geloof in de wetenschap” (NRC Handelsblad, 18 mei 2014). Met een aantal zaken in het stuk kan iedereen het eens zijn: het soms ten onrechte aannemen van wetenschappelijke ‘feiten’ die geen feiten zijn, bijvoorbeeld, is inderdaad betreurenswaardig. Waar het echter mis gaat is de dik aangezette teleurstelling van columnist Bas Heijne in de wetenschap zelf. Wetenschappelijke ‘feiten’ zouden nattevingerwerk zijn en ons valse, ongefundeerde hoop geven: “De hoop die de wetenschap ons biedt – het is bidden in de kerk, maar dan anders.”

Hier slaat Heijne de plank mis. Het mooie van wetenschap is nu juist dat je er niet in hoeft te geloven. Je kan de bronnen traceren, de onderbouwing checken en verifiëren, het experiment nadoen, etc. Dat Heijne teleurgesteld is als een wetenschappelijk ‘feit’ weerlegd wordt en een nieuw inzicht een eerder ‘feit’ falsificeert (onderzoekers van de Johns Hopkins universiteit lieten zien dat het antioxidant resveratrol in wijn en chocolade geen effect heeft op onze gezondheid), dan is hem de essentie van wetenschappelijk onderzoek ontgaan. Dat is jammer, want ook de journalistiek heeft een verantwoordelijkheid in het communiceren en evalueren van wetenschappelijke resultaten [zie tevens NRC Next, 3 oktober 2013]. Het pleit juist voor de wetenschap dat ze haar mening steeds weer wijzigt in het licht van nieuwe (en zelf-vergaarde) feiten; de uitkomsten zijn steeds weer te controleren. Wetenschappers die daar het handje mee lichten ondermijnen natuurlijk het vertrouwen in de wetenschap en dat is erg genoeg, maar een columnist die op grond hiervan suggereert dat wetenschap ons geen ‘evidence-based’ voortschrijdend inzicht verschaft, is ziende blind.

Henkjan Honing
Pim Levelt

[Zie NRC Handelsblad en NRC Next van 20 mei 2014]

Monday, May 19, 2014

More nons(ci)ence on music listening?

It happens more and more: a commercial company pays a researcher (or research group) to produce a research report, the results turn out to be (directly or indirectly) in favor of the company’s mission, and they decide to announce the results in a press release, without having the results go through the usual peer-review. And even worse, sometimes the report is not disclosed at all (see earlier blog).

Last September Spotify succeeded in getting the outcome of such a research project loud and clear in the media. Conclusion: Listening to music while you study makes you smarter (see, e.g., The Daily Mail or USA Today).

Well, there have been done a few, yet well-controlled experiments in the past on this topic. All with the conclusion that music listening can lead to enhanced performance on a variety of cognitive tests, but also that such effects are short-term and stem from the impact of music on arousal level and mood, which, in turn, affect cognitive performance (hence an indirect effect). However, this is not special to music: experiences other than music listening have similar effects (see earlier blogs).
NRC Next | 03 Oct 2013

Interestingly, the results announced in the media seem to contradict those findings. The principal researcher, Emma Gray, even goes so far as to give advise based on her findings: ‘The left side of the brain is used to process factual information and solve problems, which are key skills in these topics,’ and continues: ‘Listening to music with 50-80 beats per minute such as We Can’t Stop by Miley Cyrus and Mirrors by Justin Timberlake has a calming effect on the mind that is conducive to logical thought, allowing the brain to learn and remember new facts.’ Spotify's vice president of global communications enthusiastically adds: 'With millions of students streaming music on Spotify, it’s great to see the positive effect it could have on their studies.' Wonderful. That would indeed be great.

Unfortunately, the research report cannot be traced. Two journalists, wanting me to comment on it, could not get hold of the researcher nor the report. Peculiar if you bring out a press release, not? In the end, the journalists copied the results without being able to check the source. This is not only bad for science but also bad for journalism.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Heeft muziek evolutionair nut, of is het een zinloos tijdverdrijf? [Dutch]

Henkjan Honing (UvA) en Marc Leman (UGent) gaven afgelopen herfst een lezing in de Handelsbeurs in Gent en gingen daarna met Eos-redacteur Reinout Verbeke in gesprek. Voor meer fragmenten zie YouTube.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What makes us musical animals? [Part 2]

Group photo of all participants (except Peter Tyack and Constance Scharff, who had to leave early) contributing to a Lorentz Workshop on Musicality in April 2014.

For me personally, it was simply a pivotal workshop. With over twenty international scientists and scholars (i.e. Judith Becker, Simon E. Fisher, Tecumseh Fitch, Bruno Gingras, Jessica Grahn, Yuko Hattori, Marisa Hoeschele, David Huron, Yukiko Kikuchi, Hugo Merchant, Bjorn Merker, Iain Morley, Ani Patel, Isabelle Peretz, Martin Rohrmeier, Constance Scharff, Carel ten Cate, Laurel Trainor, Sandra Trehub, Peter Tyack, Geraint Wiggins and Jelle Zuidema) interested in musicality, we succeeded in agreeing on a research agenda to study what makes us musical animals. A publication is expected to be out in 2015. But for now, I can only be exhilarated that this group of fine researchers share a sincere fascination for this topic. A photo impression of the workshop can be found here.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What makes music groovy?

©20140417 Volkskrant
Today PLOS ONE will publish an interesting study on rhythm, groove and syncopation that uses an often criticized methodology: questionnaire and web-based research (cf. Honing & Reips, 2008). However, this study is a good example of how an unspectacular method (compared to brain imaging techniques, elegantly controlled experiments or advanced computational modelling) can still be quite informative.

The paper takes advantage of people's intrinsic interest in rhythm, timing and what's often called 'groove', in combination with the sheer fun of participating in an online listening experiment that has to do with music (cf. Honing & Ladinig, 2008).

Based on sixty-six responses, the authors were able to extract an inverted U-curve for a music-theoretic measure of syncopation, a shape that was absent for an alternative, information-theoretic measure based on the acoustic quality of the soundexamples used (i.e. entropy). As such the study provides evidence that the theoretical notion of syncopation, as defined by Longuet-Higgins' L-model in the 1980s, might be an important component of 'groovyness': pleasure and dance-inducing aspects of many musics ranging from James Brown to Marvin Gay and from Funkadelic to Stevie Wonder.

The first author, Maria Witek (Aarhus University), encouraged me to mention that the questionnaire and all soundexamples are online. Feel free to take part.

[See also article in de Volkskrant and interview on Radio 1; both in Dutch] Witek, M., Clarke, E., Wallentin, M., Kringelbach, M., & Vuust, P. (2014). Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music PLoS ONE, 9 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0094446 Honing, H., & Reips, U.-D. (2008). Web-based versus lab-based studies: a response to Kendall (2008). Empirical Musicology Review, 3 (2), 73-77. Honing, H., & Ladinig, O. (2008). The potential of the Internet for music perception research: A comment on lab-based versus Web-based studies. Empirical Musicology Review, 3 (1), 4-7.