About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

March 16, 2014

Random Thoughts on a Cold Sunday

If you didn't hear Gilles Vonsattel's spectacular Ives Concord Sonata at Leffler Performance Center last night, I am sorry for you. Gilles' father is a neuropathologist.

If you didn't attend the Met HD Live Werther yesterday I am sorry again for you. We thought it was one of the best HD Live productions this year. Maybe I'll read Goethe's novel. Gilles' wife, Sarah, expecting their first child, played in the orchestra's violin section. (They have au pairs lined up.) 

I was also sorry to learn of the passing of Iola Brubeck. Here are some things you might not have known about a wonderful woman.

Catching up on my reading. I found some fascinating items:

 "No part of the brain is not connected to some other part of the brain, either directly or indirectly." --Dr. Damien Fair, Oregon Health and Science University. The current map of connections, still very rudimentary, reminds me of the airline map in the seat pocket on my last flight. If this fascinates you, check out the Connectome Project.

  • "We come into the world knowing almost nothing. You can trace almost all of your behaviors to learning as opposed to genes. Language, riding a bicycle, how you button your shirt -- basically everything is learned, which means once that information gets into the brain it has to be turned into a stable form." --Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, Harvard University (Note that he said "behaviors")

  • Among all schools at Yale, the School of Music has the most international students: 87 of 215 (40%). Yale College (undergrads) has 11%.

  • In deciding how of face the near-inevitability of sharing their last decades with prostate cancer, men may first need to examine their philosophy of life and then earn a Ph.d. in Statistics. N Engl J Med 2014; 370:932-942. Don't expect much help from your doctor; s/he probably doesn't have time: Diagnose This; How to be your own best doctor. Harper's Magazine, April 2014. Or: When Doctors Don't Listen, Leana Wen and Joshua Kosowsky, 2012.

  • Lured back to Russia in 1936 and hoping to rescue a faltering career, the composer, Serge Prokofiev was largely disappointed--and then the exit doors closed. He walked out in his wife, Lina, to move in with a much younger student, "thinking well enough of his wife to summon a physician to ensure that she was well cared for," according to Simon Morrsion, who wrote the recent Serge and Lina: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev. Seven years later Lina was arrested and spent 8 years in the gulag. When she was released Prokofiev had died (obscurely in 1953 on the same day as Stalin). Lina spent her remaining 33 years as his cultural ambassador, attending concerts, donating papers to archives, and giving interviews to journalists. The Soviets, surprisingly, eventually recognized both marriages. --from a review by Orlando Figes, New York Review of Books., Mar 6

March 11, 2014

Hearing with our Eyes

A researcher at the University College of London, Chia-Jung Tsay, studies how we evaluate a performance of music. What makes us think a performance great, or not? 

The results are stunning: we use our eyes!

To make a long story short (as my mother used to say, but I recommend reading it*) Tsay selected two groups of subjects, each numbered in the hundreds: one group were professional musicians and the other just plain folks (musical novices). She presented them performances from two different categories: 1) a highly ranked ("world class") orchestra, say the Chicago Symphony, and 2) an average regional orchestra, say a fictitious Fargo Philharmonic. Each 'performance' was six seconds long by: 1) sound recording, 2) a silent video recording, and 3) recordings with audio and video, all of the same passage in the music. Subjects viewed similar performances of chamber ensembles, prize-winning v. just average ones.

Tsay described in great detail her experimental methods and statistical evaluation of the results of dozens of separate tests. They seem rigorous and complete to me. She had to make sure that none of the subjects got clues to the right answers to the single question: which of two performances in each test was by the supposedly higher-rated ensemble? 

Again, to oversimplify the results for clarity: the only times significant numbers of either group of subjects identified the prestigious ensembles correctly (more frequently than by chance) were when they viewed the silent video performances! Even the musicians couldn't distinguish the Fargo Phil from the Chicago Symphony by sound recordings!

One additional subtest also showed similar results when the video narrowly focused on the one member of an ensemble who appeared to be the de facto 'leader' of the group. When the camera focused on the 'followers,' the subjects' responses were no better than chance.

There is more detail in the report, but all followed this same pattern supported by robust statistics. As in all research, insightful critics can often discover hidden bias that could change the results and conclusions. And, as in all research, someone else needs to repeat the experiments and confirm or deny these results.

My criticism would be that I need longer than six seconds of music to make any judgement about it. 

Like all good research, the results of this one raise additional questions. Will 'rankings' of recordings change as more people experience them on YouTube than on audio recordings? What are the implications for those of us who champion "live music?" Should we re-evaluate the recent policy of auditioning candidates for orchestras behind screens? (Tsay doesn't mention that it began when 'old white men' conductors had certain biases.) Should music schools change their teaching? Are the 'best' orchestra conductors ranked that way by their appearance? Have the people who make 'music videos' known this for years? At least now I understand Kenny G!

Of course, it stands to reason that, as all the musicians said to the experimenter: "it's the sound that counts." We all know that ranking orchestras and ensembles is no more accurate than ranking college football teams, though no money rides on the former. (Or does it?)

*The vision heuristic: Judging music ensembles by sight alone