Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Scientists Just Trying to Help

Readers of this blog know that one of the things likely to catch my interest is scientific research into how we hear and react to music. And by "catch my interest" I'm afraid that I mean that I am almost always annoyed and infuriated. Now why is that? Aren't scientists just trying to help? If so, they are doing an astonishingly pointless job of it. Let's take a recent example:

The meaninglessness of this study, crafted entirely to answer questions none of us was interested in asking, sets a new high. Let me show you what I mean. Here is what they call the 'problem':

PROBLEM: Divergent preferences aside, hearing music as music, and not just noise, is something we can (usually) agree on. What's going on in our brains that allows us to universally recognize it as something special?
I'm sorry, how is all this a 'problem'? First of all, what do they mean by "divergent preferences"? Just the fact that there is a wide range of different tastes in music? Mentioning this would seem to be irrelevant as the study only involves listening to one composer, hence the question of the divergence of tastes is avoided. Next, what do they mean by "hearing music as music"? What would it mean to NOT hear music as music? Honestly, I'm kind of stumped by this. The link is of no help in understanding the point as it just goes to an Atlantic article on electronic dance music. Is that the 'noise'? Since I really do not understand any part of this opening sentence, I doubt that it expresses anything we can agree on! The next sentence is even more perplexing: "What's going on in our brains that allows us to universally recognize it as something special?" Yes, of course, since these folks are neurophysiologists, then "what's going on in the brain" is their only real interest. I understand that. But the idea that something going on in the brain is somehow "allowing" us to recognize something about music is an odd turn of phrase to all of us who are not neurophysiologists. The word that most bothers me is "universally". That big, ten-dollar word presumably is what legitimizes this study and justifies the grant money. Hey, it's "universal" so really important!

OK, so they had everyone, chosen for their lack of "formal musical training", lie down and listen to William Boyce. By the way, isn't it odd that most of these studies focus on subjects with little familiarity with music in a professional way? In what way does this help the study? How would the study be harmed by using either professional musicians or a mix as subjects? Let's listen to a Boyce symphony to see what we are dealing with.

William Boyce is a composer of charming, harmless 18th century music in that transition from the Baroque to Classical styles. As such, it is highly dependent on precisely balanced and structured phrases and harmonies. The researcher's experiment consisted in having the subjects listen to music by Boyce in its original form and then,
To ensure that the brain activity they were mapping was in response to the music as a whole, and not just to one of its structural features, the researchers also had the subjects listen to altered versions of the symphonies: in one, all rhythm and timing was removed, and in the other, they were made atonal.
 I'm not quite sure what they thought they were "ensuring" here. What is the real significance of measuring the response to the music as a whole as opposed to a structural feature? For example, music itself often selects a particular structural feature and presents it alone. A Bach fugue is a good example: the subject appears initially by itself. Also, a sophisticated listener often listens to different sections differently at different times. You might decide to just focus on the bass line on one occasion. It's not likely something that you would mention to a researcher and you might not even be consciously aware of it yourself.

But what is obvious here is that they had people listen to ordinary pieces of music, then to wildly distorted versions. Then they noticed that the brain patterns were different. The key finding seems to be this, when listening to the original music researchers noted a "highly distinctive and distributed set of brain regions". Now what could that possibly mean? Even grammatically it seems to be a tortured use of the English language. This makes a bit more sense: "In the music from which some of the elements that make it musical were removed, on the other hand, brain activity was markedly different from subject to subject." I think that what this is telling us is that music, successful actual music, is organized in ways that human beings can perceive and respond to. Music that is wildly distorted doesn't lead to the same kind of clear and organized response. Frankly, I could pretty much have told you that if you had asked. It is really no news to a musician that if he or she plays a nicely put together piece of music in a convincing way, that an audience will be able to have a clear aesthetic response. This is, after all, exactly why we go to all that trouble of practicing for twenty years. Here is how the article ends:
higher-level cognitive functioning immediately takes over when we listen to music,  a process, the authors write, that "facilitates our collective social capacity for listening and attending to music." Regardless of how we may personally feel about what we're hearing, it would seem we're all hearing it in the same, "highly consistent" way.
So if they had used musicians in the test, the results would probably have been even more pronounced as they are the ones that develop this "higher-level cognitive functioning" when listening to music.

UPDATE: Reading this over I notice that I still didn't quite get to the point. What I see here is that if you completely DISorganize a piece of music, then the listener has a much less consistent and organized response. This is so obvious it is difficult to understand why you would test for it. This is why we organize music in the first place instead of just flopping around on stage!

UPPERDATE: Something else that occurred to me: it would have been very helpful to have the original examples they played for the subjects, both the original and distorted versions. For one thing, we would be able to hear precisely what they were talking about and for another, if we were able to hear the samples, I think the points I was trying to make above would be even more obvious!

In related news, here is the best news I've heard all week:

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