The song of the hermit thrush, a common North American songbird, is renowned for its apparent musicality and has attracted the attention of musicians and ornithologists for more than a century.
Recent research has shown that hermit thrush songs, like much human music, use pitches that are mathematically related by simple integer ratios and follow the harmonic series. These findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer ratio intervals is not unique to humans; such findings are particularly relevant to the ongoing nature/nurture debate about whether musical predispositions such as the preference for consonant intervals are biologically or culturally driven.
This according to “Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music” by Emily Doolittle, et al. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America CXI/46 [18 November 2014] pp. 16616–16621).
Below, a hermit thrush video that will fascinate your cats; more recordings, including slowed-down ones, are here.
Die Lebensfreude is a pioneering piece of music composed with the aid of an amoeba-like plasmodial slime mold called physarum polycephalum.
The composition is for an ensemble of five instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano) and six channels of electronically synthesized sounds. The instrumental parts and the synthesized sounds are musifications and sonifications, respectively, of a multi-agent based simulation of physarum foraging for food.
Physarum polycephalum inhabits cool, moist, shaded areas over decaying plant matter, and it eats nutrients such as oat flakes, bacteria, and dead organic matter. It is a biological computing substrate, and has been enjoying much popularity within the unconventional computing research community for its astonishing computational properties.
This according to “Harnessing the intelligence of physarum polycephalum for unconventional computing-aided musical composition”by Eduardo R. Miranda, an article included in Music and unconventional computing (London: AISB, 2013).
Many thanks to the Annals of Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention! Above, the co-composer; below, the work’s premiere.
Speech impairment is one of the most intriguing and least understood effects of alcohol on cognitive function, largely due to the lack of data on alcohol effects on vocalizations in the context of an appropriate experimental model organism.
Zebra finches, a representative songbird and a premier model for understanding the neurobiology of vocal production and learning, learn song in a manner analogous to how humans learn speech. When allowed access, finches readily drink alcohol, increase their blood ethanol concentrations (BEC) significantly, and sing a song with altered acoustic structure.
The most pronounced effects were decreased amplitude and increased entropy, the latter likely reflecting a disruption in the birds’ ability to maintain the spectral structure of song under alcohol. Furthermore, specific syllables, which have distinct acoustic structures, were differentially influenced by alcohol, likely reflecting a diversity in the neural mechanisms required for their production. Remarkably, these effects on vocalizations occurred without overt effects on general behavioral measures, and importantly, they occurred within a range of BEC that can be considered risky for humans.
Results suggest that the variable effects of alcohol on finch song reflect differential alcohol sensitivity of the brain circuitry elements that control different aspects of song production. They also point to finches as an informative model for understanding how alcohol affects the neuronal circuits that control the production of learned motor behaviors.
This according to “Drinking songs: Alcohol effects on learned song of zebra finches” by Christopher R. Olson, et al. (PLOS one IX/12 [23 December 2014] e115427).
Above, a female zebra finch reacts to a (perhaps inebriated) male; below, a (perhaps sober) zebra finch with a fastidious friend.
The relative importance of nature and nurture for various forms of expertise has been intensely debated. Music proficiency is viewed as a general model for expertise, and associations between deliberate practice and music proficiency have been interpreted as supporting the prevailing idea that long-term deliberate practice inevitably results in increased music ability.
An experiment examined the associations (rs = .18–.36) between music practice and music ability (rhythm, melody, and pitch discrimination) in 10,500 Swedish twins. The researchers found that music practice was substantially heritable (40%−70%).
Associations between music practice and music ability were predominantly genetic, and, contrary to the causal hypothesis, nonshared environmental influences did not contribute. There was no difference in ability within monozygotic twin pairs differing in their amount of practice, so that when genetic predisposition was controlled for, more practice was no longer associated with better music skills.
These findings suggest that music practice may not causally influence music ability and that genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice.
This according to “Practice does not make perfect: No causal effect of music practice on music ability” by Miriam A. Mosing, Guy Madison, et al. (Psychological science XXV/9 [September 2014] pp. 1795–1803).
Above, the identical twins Laura (left) and Charlotte Carrivick, who perform as The Carrivick Sisters; below, Derrick Davis and Tom McFadden discuss the importance of genetics (an article about their work is here).
An experiment tested the assumption that music plays a role in sexual selection.
Three hundred young women were solicited in the street for their phone number by a young male confederate who held either a guitar case or a sports bag in his hands or had no bag at all.
Results showed that holding a guitar case was associated with greater compliance to the request, thus suggesting that musical practice is associated with sexual selection.
This according to “Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context” by Nicolas Guéguen, Sébastien Meineri, and Jacques Fischer-Lokou (Psychology of music XLII/4 [July 2014] pp. 545–49).
Above, Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, perhaps providing a rule-proving exception; below, a study of men’s reactions to a man with a guitar case.
Related article: Sexual attraction by genre
Emerging in the gaps between biology and physics, matter and unseen ether, electricity is a liminal force that inevitably carries a powerful imaginative charge both ethereal and anxious.
Many of the influential early figures in the science of electricity, such as Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, and Guglielmo Marconi, couched the new technology in mysticism and spiritualism, or even linked it to extraterrestrial life. Even the inventor of the phonograph himself was somewhat of a techno-spiritualist; Thomas Edison once attempted to build a radio device capable of capturing the voices of the dead.
Since then, musicians and composers both highbrow and popular have twiddled and tweaked electronic and electrical instruments, as well as electromagnetic recording and broadcasting technologies, to tune into new sonic, compositional, and expressive possibilities. In so doing, they have also gone a long way toward reimagining the scrambled boundaries of subjectivity as it makes its way through the invisible landscapes—both dreadful and sublime—that make up the acoustic space of electronic media.
This according to “Recording angels: The esoteric origins of the phonograph” by Erik Davis, an article included in Undercurrents: The hidden wiring of modern music (London: Continuum, 2002). Above, Edison with his phonograph, photographed by Matthew Brady in 1878; below, his 1910 film A trip to Mars.
Related article: Esoteric orchestration
In an experiment, 54 participants were instructed to play Twinkle, twinkle, little star using the Smule ocarina app on the iPhone, which involved blowing into the microphone of the iPhone and placing fingers on the screen to produce different notes.
One week after receiving instruction, the participants were randomly assigned to either an acute-stress induction procedure or a no-stress control group. The acute-stress group exhibited elevations in levels of cortisol as well as negative mood and arousal (as measured by two self-report measures of mood and arousal), compared to the no-stress group.
Participants in both groups were subsequently randomly assigned to one of three 10-minute-long activities: playing or listening to Twinkle, twinkle, little star on the iPhone ocarina or sitting in silence. Participants who had undergone the stress-inducing procedure and who played or listened to the ocarina during the stress-recovery period showed significant decreases in cortisol levels compared to those who sat in silence. However, as expected, participants in the no-stress group who played the iPhone ocarina showed significant increases in cortisol levels relative to participants who listened to it or sat in silence.
This according to “Effects of individual music playing and music listening on acute-stress recovery/Les effets du jeu et de l’écoute musicale sur le rétablissement d’un individu la suite d’un stress aigu” by Gabriela Ilie and Ramen Rehana (Canadian journal of music therapy/Revue canadienne de musicothérapie XIX/1  pp. 23–46).
Above and below, the iPhone ocarina in action.
While he was stuck in traffic in early 2000, the physicist Carl Haber heard the drummer and world music enthusiast Mickey Hart on the radio talking about the dire need for preserving early recordings of indigenous peoples.
Haber had been working with SmartScope, a machine that analyzes visual information, and his work had been going so well that he had started brainstorming for further uses of this machine. It occurred to him that SmartScope might be able to read these old recordings without touching them, thereby removing the likelihood of irrevocably damaging them by playing them.
The idea worked, and Haber went on to facilitate the preservation of recordings in repositories such as the Library of Congress, and to participate in the repatriation of historical recordings to Native Americans and other ethnic groups, allowing them to hear the voices of their ancestors.
This according to “A voice from the past: How a physicist resurrected the earliest recordings” by Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker XC/13 [19 May 2014], pp. 50–57). Above and below, Dr. Haber and his technological innovations.
In 2013 Ēkhō Verlag launched the series Publications of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology (ISSN 2198-039X) with Music & ritual: Bridging material & living cultures, edited by Raquel Jiménez Pasalodos and Rupert Till.
The volumes in this series are anthologies of peer-reviewed articles focused on a specific topic. Reflecting the broad scope of music-archaeological research worldwide, they draw in perspectives from a range of disciplines, including newly emerging fields such as archaeoacoustics, but particularly encouraging both music-archaeological and ethnomusicological perspectives.
Snowball, a male sulphur-crested cockatoo, was brought to the rescue shelter Bird Lovers Only in 2007; his caregiver had gone off to college, and the family was having trouble managing him.
The family gave a CD to Irena Schulz, the shelter’s director, and told her to play it and watch Snowball. She was amazed to see the cockatoo dance to the music, accurately keeping time with his head, shoulders, legs, and claws!
A video that Schulz made of Snowball ended up on YouTube, where it went viral; he went on to appear in several television shows and ads.
The video was brought to the attention of Annirudh D. Patel and John R. Iversen, two researchers interested in connections between animal behavior and music; they were astonished, and Schulz allowed them to conduct experiments to verify that Snowball was actually listening to the music and responding with physical rhythmic mimicry. Their vindicating study, “Experimental evidence for synchronization to a musical beat in a nonhuman animal” (Current biology XIX/10 [26 May 2009] pp. 827–830) carries a byline for Schulz along with Patel, Iversen, and Micah R. Bregman.
Below, a brief video about Schulz and Snowball, followed by more videos of Snowball in action.
Related article: A sea lion in Boogie Wonderland