Sunday, June 16, 2013


Another collection of odd little stories from the Internet.

  • First, a story about perfect pitch. They found out that by slowly altering the pitch of a long passage of music, they could fool some people who had perfect pitch and did not notice the change. I've always thought that "perfect pitch" was a misnomer anyway. What it is, is pitch memory and people simply have it in various amounts. For example, I don't have perfect pitch. If someone plays a note for me or I hear a car horn, I can't tell you what note it was. But if I want to tune a guitar and don't have a tuning fork handy, I can approximate to within a semi-tone, an A 440. I have a friend who has very accurate pitch memory. So much so that when invited to perform with a Baroque orchestra, having to play at old pitch where A is 415 instead of 440, nearly drove her crazy! I have another friend, a singer who specializes in early music who has two "perfect pitch" standards. He is easily able to switch his brain over from A 440 to A 415. My favorite hilarious line from the story is this one: "The researchers will now look at whether or not they can improve people's perception of pitch." As if music teachers have not been doing precisely that since around the time of Guido of Arezzo, circa 1000 AD!
  • And yet another one of those stories about neurological research into how people perceive music. Canada seems to be dominating this kind of research, and how I wish it meant anything! Here is the nub of the story: "Using MRI scans, a Canadian team of scientists found that areas in the reward centre of the brain became active when people heard a song for the first time." Translation: a select group of people seemed to enjoy a selection of music. You see, it's those little words like "people" and "music" that you have to watch out for. In order for scientists to do the kind of research they like to do, they have to set things up in a certain way. But the news stories usually omit the details so you really have no idea what was actually going on. I've read stories where they were making wild claims about the way "people" listened to "music" only to find out that it was a specially selected group of people with no musical background listening to particularly crappy kinds of pop music. Again, the story ends with a particularly hilarious line: "The researchers now want to find out how this drives our music tastes, and whether our brain activity can explain why people are drawn to different styles of music." Good luck with that!
  • Funnier and funnier, though I don't think the journalist writing this story actually noticed the humor. Notice this about all these stories: there is the opening seemingly interesting idea or claim: "Professor Armand Leroi from Imperial College London explains why he thinks a Darwinian computer program that can evolve music from noise could kill off the composer." Then in the body of the story we find out how impoverished the research actually was. They had a computer churn out random loops of sound. Then, not realizing how utterly this invalidated the whole concept, they had people rate the loops in terms of aesthetic quality. Then the ones more highly rated were fed back into the computer. Then there is the concluding wild speculation: "I've no doubt that if we ran this experiment for longer, using bigger, faster computers, and millions of people rather than thousands, and for years, instead of months, we could evolve fantastic music." And there you go. You are now qualified to write articles for the BBC on the latest "scientific" research on music. UPDATE: I'm not sure if I made my point here. And if you had people like Beethoven and Bach evaluating the loops, you could evolve fantastic music even quicker!
  • OK, one final example. Here is a story about latent musical ability. Opening teaser: "You might have more musical talent than you realise. Results from a BBC experiment that tests musical skill suggest that many people who have not had formal training still have musical ability." I love how excited they are about themselves and what they did. "BBC Lab UK's experiment, called How Musical Are You?, was launched in January 2011 and has been taken by more than 150,000 people, making it the largest ever investigation into the musical profile of an entire nation." I almost hate to point out that every single department, faculty, school and conservatory of music in the entire world does this every year and has for a very, very long time. It is called "auditioning" and if you like, I will share my experience with you. Musicians and prospective musicians are always auditioning. For classical musicians it starts with your audition to get into a conservatory or university school of music. When I first showed up at university as a very new classical musician, just a year or so away from playing in a rock band, I wasn't quite sure of the procedure. I didn't actually know I was going to be doing a formal audition and didn't know what one was anyway. So I showed up without my guitar. This didn't hinder the process very much as a faculty member, the conducting professor, just took me into the nearest practice room and sat down at the piano. He played a high note and said "sing this note back to me" which I did. Then he played a low note and said sing it back. Then he played a short melody, just five or six notes, and said sing that back. Then he played a chord and said, is this major or minor. That was it. I passed. They are usually more formal than that, but if you can do that with no preparation, it is a good indicator that you can at least hear and sing back pitches. If you can't do it, that is a pretty bad indicator. After the initial bit about "hidden musicality" the rest of the article is propaganda for "non-traditional" kinds of music training. Here is how they put it: "Harnessing natural musical talent can be done by spending "quality time" experiencing music in as many different ways as possible, Dr Mullensiefen said. "It doesn't have to be classical piano training where you lock yourself in a room and spend hours not talking to anyone else. It can also be getting together with friends and making music, singing or jamming. Or if you're not even playing, putting on records together with friends and exchanging ideas about music and exploring new music." I dunno, seems as if being hip and groovy and non-traditional is supposed to be more important than working at it. That, by the way, is why people lock themselves in a room to practice. It's called avoiding distractions!
  • Let's end by listening to someone who locked himself in a room and practiced the piano for a long time:

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