Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Music and Language

Dave Munger has posted a very good description of recent research on the interactions in the cognitive processing of music and language. A team of music psychologists at the Université de Bourgogne found that musical expectancies affected listeners abilities to judge language expectancies. Many studies have shown that music processing and language processing occur in different parts of the brain. This study shows that these processing center may be separate, but they do still interact with each other. This French team presented some of their research at the Neurosciences and Music II conference I attended. I was particularly impressed with Emmanuel Bigand's experimental design for examining judgments of emotional content.

Monday, May 30, 2005

...And in the harmonies, bind them

Eric Rawlins has created a website listing leitmotifs in the Lord of the Rings film scores. First I have to point out the excellent advice he gives on labeling and interpreting these motives. As has been pointed out by countless philosophers, musicians, and cognitive scientists, music has the ability to express what cannot be expressed by words. These leitmotifs are an example of that. The concepts change as the context, harmonic underpinning, or melodic overpinning(?) is altered. Likewise, the melding of music with visual elements can create new complex associations (e.g. the use of Barber's Adagio in Platoon.) Eric focuses on the latter much more than the former, and keeps all musical analysis to a novice level.

Second, I have to point to one motif that I think Eric mislabels/misinterprets. The Ring motif is indeed used quite often when the Ring is mentioned. But it also occurs at the Argonath scene, as Eric rightly points out, and when Galadriel mentions how things have been lost and forgotten in the prelude of the first film. While the motif does represent the Ring, it also represents all the lost lore/wisdom/culture of the previous ages. Man can no longer build things like the Argonath. The end of the Ring means the end of the Elves power and culture. I think it overall represents the transition from the Elf-dominated world to a new one, which will be dominated by either Men or Orcs. It also captures the tone of Tolkein's books, with a nostalgic focus on the glories of the past, never to be repeated.

I'm thinking of teaching a course on the music of the Lord of the Rings for Winter Term in two years. It would include the film scores, with the extended DVD documentaries, score reviews (including Jaquandar's), and this site. It would also look at LOTR-inspired music, from band music to rock and jazz. I think it would be a good way to sneak in some basics of semiotics, while making for a fun course.

(via Jaquandar)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Evolutionary Psychology

One of the papers I graded this semester was on the evolutionary psychology view of music. We talked about this subject in class, reading articles by David Huron and Donald Hodges. As I've thought about it more, spurred by reading the student's paper and attending a session at the Neurosciences and Music II conference, I've realized a major problem with the application of evolutionary psychology (one that most people probably already thought up). Evolution is about physical adaptations, traits that are passed from one generation to the next. These adaptations can include changes to the brain, which will affect the behavior of the particular species. But so much of evolutionary psychology is looking only at behavior, not at physical changes. In asking the question of why humans evolved to enjoy and make music, many studies focus only on the behavior, and don't distinguish between behaviors caused by physical attributes and behaviors caused by social attributes. A culture can pass along behavioral responses from one generation to the next through education and social pressure, just as much as by the formation of the brain or the sense organs.

Some more recent studies have looked at brain scans and brain physiology, comparing humans with other species and mapping these comparisons to behavioral trends. While seals are hardwired to vocalize in efforts to attract a mate, it has been shown that the actual sounds that are made are learned. (Even if the learned Mainer accent didn't help with the ladies...) Other studies on primates, birds, and rats have attempted to clarify which musical behaviors are solely human, and thus possibly an evolutionary adaptation. But defining whether a bobo's drumming is musical behavior can be difficult, if not impossible given the current definitions of music.

I still don't know what to think about music as an adaptation. Are there studies on the evolutionary aspects of other arts, such as painting or poetry? I know there is plenty on the evolution of language, as that is often cited in the music studies.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Calou, Calay!

Grading is done! Thank you to the commentors of the previous post. Those are some excellent suggestions. One thing I need to decide is whether to continue allowing the students to write about any piece, as long as it fits my criteria, or give them specific pieces to choose from. The negative aspect of the former is that I have to spend time learning obscure oboe concerti or Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel piano sonatas (more on that later). But the students have a personal interest in their choices, which can inspire them to greater heights.

The negative of the second choice is that it can encourage cheating. I could have exactly as many pieces as there are students, and rotate sets every year. But somebody will be unhappy getting stuck with the Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf contrabass concerto. I'll have to ponder this over the summer.

But now, I get to catch up on housework, go see Star Wars tomorrow morning, and head off to Chicago for a weekend of sightseeing with the family. I'm teaching at the DePauw Vocal Arts Camp again, and also at IU for their summer session. But I'm teaching the exact same course (20th century analysis and literature), so there will be very little prep work needed.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The best use of paper

I'm not going to provide a grading log like Jimbo, because it would be too depressing.* Instead, I offer you a conundrum I've been wrestling with as I wade through my students' analysis papers. Well, perhaps not a conundrum, but more a question about pedagogy. I find that I'm writing comments in these papers that would be very useful to the students in their future classes. These are comments on formatting, writing style, organization of thoughts, appropriate citations (especially for paraphrases, arrgh!), and corrections of analytical missteps. But these students are gone for the summer, and many of them are studying abroad next fall. Thus most will never see these comments. I should therefore have an earlier due date, so I can correct the papers and return them before the end of the semester. But the conundrum (and the depressing fact that keeps me from posting a grading log) is that it takes me a long time to grade these papers. The only time I have large blocks of free time to grade them is after classes are done. So what should I do?

*Visit Jimbo's blog, so his traffic count won't depend only on Sid Rosenberg.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

365 days, and still no catblogging

Today is the anniversary of this blog. My voice has slowly evolved over the past year, especially in my view of what the role of Musical Perceptions should be. I have written far less about academic politics than I thought I would, probably due to my lack of anonymity. I started out writing a lot about politics, but got burned out after the election. I've moved my political efforts to writing my congressmen and the occasional letter to the editor, and I tend to avoid the political blogs right now. I did a few of the blog-meme things over the year, but have stopped doing so unless I have something specific to say about the meme or survey. Likewise, I do not see this blog as a clearinghouse for all music blog news, beyond providing the blogroll on the left. I want to write substantial posts, which means that my rate of posting has slowed down. This was particularly true for the last month, when I took an extended hiatus. All of my creativity was focused on teaching/grading, creating a research poster, and setting up my research agenda for the summer.

I also did some reading: Winter's Tale (thanks to John Scalzi), Perdido Street Station (thanks to Crooked Timber), and Gun, with Occasional Music (thanks to no one, my airplane book).

In the last year, I've had 14,210 visitors. (This is in slightly less than a year, as I didn't install Sitemeter until May 30). April was my biggest month, with almost 1,700 visitors. My Google Page Rank is 5, good enough to get me a very nice tea maker. My name generates 5,070 hits on Google, and my blog name generates 715,000 hits. In both cases this blog is first on the list. My music blogroll started with Tim Johnson's The Rambler, and has expanded to 36, plus many other non-music blogs. I also started three class blogs, a project I will continue for the forseeable future. I'm pleased with the results, and hope you are as well. And that's enough navel gazing. Coming up, a survey of my students' research papers (names withheld to protect the "innocent.")

Friday, May 13, 2005

Appropriate uses

High-definition MIDI is a means of encoding musical performance data with a high degree of accuracy. Currently used by Zenph Studios on grand pianos, the code can indicate very precise key pressures and pedal motions. This first part is not new, and not specific to Zenph Studios, though they are the only ones using Yamaha's HD MIDI specs. The Ohio State University Center for Music Cognition has a computer-controlled Bosendorfer grand piano that utilizes HD MIDI to record piano performances for analysis.

Where Zenph Studios has made strides is in the transcription of recorded sound to MIDI encoding. Ohio State's lab uses cameras and pressure sensors in the piano to encode performances, whereas Zenph has worked out a means of converting recorded WAV files, purely acoustic information, to MIDI files. Where this is particularly tricky is in polyphonic musical textures, with several notes playing at the same time (or very near the same time). Previous attempts at transcription software had only achieved a success rate of 80 - 90%, with up to 10% of the notes missing and another 10% transcribed wrongly. Zenph claims a 100% accuracy to its transcriptions, using proprietary technology.

This means of transcription can be immensely useful in performance research, looking at microvariations in pressure and timing that distinguish Horowitz from an amateur. It can also reveal important structural aspects of music that necessitate performance interpretations.

However, Zenph is also proposing two related uses of its technology that are inappropriate in my eyes (and ears). First, to celebrate their technological breakthroughs Zenph has arranged for a MIDI-generated performance from transcriptions of recordings by Glenn Gould and Alfred Cortot. Next Thursday, National Chopin Piano Competition winner Mei-Ting Sun is giving a recital in Fletcher Opera Theater, Raleigh, North Carolina. During this recital recreations of Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations and Cortot's 1928 recording of a Chopin prelude will be performed. Related to this, Zenph proposes to use the technology to re-record old performances to provide a variety of improvements:
better piano (its timbre or richness)
better piano tuning (particularly individual out-of-tune strings)
better piano voicing (how the hammers hit the strings)
better room acoustics
less background noise – no interruptions from cars, coughs, airplanes, etc.
better microphones, more (or fewer) microphones
better microphone placement
better recording equipment
recorded at a better (higher) bit rate

I feel this use is out of step with current archival practices in the other arts. Preservation efforts for documents focus on maintaining current physical integrity, rather than improving the legibility. Preservation efforts in the visual arts attempt to restore the original appearance. In music, this is seen with efforts to denoise recordings, sometimes using very high tech efforts. But Zenph is proposing to "improve" the performances, creating sounds that had never existed before. My problem with this is that most of the fixes suggested - room acoustics, voicing, piano quality, and tuning - are things that the pianists had accounted for in their performances. Fats Waller might have chosen different voicings if his piano had been tuned differently. Arthur Rubenstein might have chosen to articulate a particular passage differently if the piano was different or the room had a different reverberation time. Zenph will rarely be able to account for all the variables that made up the original recorded performance, thus the archival possibilities of this technology is questionable at best. At worst, the new recordings will be the musical equivalent of John Wayne shilling Coors Light.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Finally, a good use for science

MapInfo, a company that specializes in gathering and applying geographical and demographical data, has clearly had too much time on its hands. They have gathered the information about the past three winners of American Idol, so as to predict this year's winner. Apparently Kelly, Ruben, and Fantasia all lived in Southern, affluent, socially active neighborhoods. So this year's candidate who best fit that description is Bo Bice. You may start your betting now.

It's Alive!

Okay, I hadn't really planned to take a sabbatical from blogging, but it worked out well. I've been finishing the semester at DePauw, working on various committees (I'm very excited that Gabriel Crouch is going to be our next choir director), writing articles and creating posters, and travelling to Leipzig for a totally awesome conference on Neuroscience and Music. In Leipzig I got to hear Bach's Mass in B minor, performed in the same church that Bach was cantor of from 1723 until his death in 1750. I also attended a concert of music by Bach and Stravinsky at the Gewandhaus, where Mendelssohn was conductor. Okay, the original Gewandhaus was burned down and the concert hall moved many times, but there is still a sense of history.

Now, I'm in my last two days of classes for the semester, feeling mighty refreshed and ready for some serious research this summer. I'm also ready to start blogging again, just in time for my first anniversary. Coming up, uses of Geospatial Information Services (GIS) to predict the winner of American Idol.