Friday, June 15, 2012

Lame Pseudo-Science

I've written before about how amazingly, startlingly lame scientific research into music seems these days. Here is the latest: a story about how to write 'scary' music with a cameo appearance by the yellow-bellied marmot. The original research seems to make modest, rather dull claims which are tarted up for the popular article. It is always thus.

Ironically, the image and opening paragraphs, which 'sell' the story, go directly against the actual research. The theme to Jaws uses low bass sounds in piano, strings and brass with percussion interjections.

The sounds used in the research are high, screechy sounds made by a marmot in peril. The researcher, Daniel Blumstein, calls these "non-linear" sounds. I think I can sum up this study as follows: some animals make screechy sounds when terrified. Perhaps if similar sounds are inserted into films scores, they might stimulate fear arousal in the audience. For a laugh, go listen to the lame examples at the first link. Film composers come up with much better ways to write ominous, foreboding or scary music. As per the example from Jaws, composed by the ubiquitous John Williams.

Scientists, and, it seems, especially 'evolutionary biologists' seem to have absolutely no understanding whatsoever of music. But, armed with remarkably irrelevant research, they presume to tell us how music works. Give it a rest, guys. You haven't come up with one piece of research so far that hasn't made me laugh out loud.


Neuroskeptic said...

I wouldn't call it pseudoscience but it does seem fairly lame - when I saw the headline, I was hoping for something about infrasounds that cause fear despite being inaudible... or something.

Nathan Shirley said...

Maybe soft science is a nicer term.

Soft scientists always seem to "discover" basic common sense which most of us figured out on our own at age 15.

The really sad thing is that they're often dead wrong. When they're not, they usually only get a small piece of the puzzle (thinking they got the whole thing).

They say "but wait, we used the scientific method, we must be right!". But no, they THOUGHT they were using the scientific method.

If you want to understand the human mind, read Chekhov. If you want to understand music, listen to Chopin.

Bryan Townsend said...

Neuroskeptic, I was thinking the same thing when I started reading. But that research has already been done. A lot of the lameness in this kind of science these days may come from the fact that the low-hanging fruit was picked long ago and now they are just digging around in odd corners.

True, Nathan, true. Actually I think that there is something quite interesting that this research reveals, though inadvertently. Scientists have been poking around trying to find out how music affects people and coming up with very little--like this study. They have been trying to link it with evolutionary biology or with changes in the brain. In the case of evolutionary biology, what does seem to be clear is that composing and listening to music are high-order functions. Take for example, the expression of sorrow in opera. Over a long period of time certain musical 'codes' have been developed such as the use of the minor 6th interval, to express sorrow. Another code is the chromatic descending bass line from I to V. There are lots of examples. Composers use, in creative ways, these codes and conventions. Evolutionary biology has nothing to do with it and measuring changes in the brain with the crude machinery available now isn't likely to show much either. But the fact that these methods don't produce results tells us that music achieves its expression in different ways...