Category Archives: Science

SMUG: Scientific Music Generator



SMUG is a system for generating lyrics and melodies from real-world data, in particular from academic papers.

The developers of SMUG wanted to create a playful experience and establish a novel way of generating textual and musical content that could be applied to other domains, in particular to games.

This according to “SMUG: Scientific Music Generator” by Marco Scirea, Gabriella A. B. Barros, Noor Shaker, and Julian Togelius, a paper included in Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Computational Creativity (Provo: Brigham Young University, 2015, pp. 204–211).

Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this to our attention! Above, an excerpt from the score generated from Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species by means of natural selection. Below, an app that generates music from barcodes.


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Camille Saint-Saëns, astronomer

saint-saens and flammarion

Many know Saint-Saëns as the composer of Le carnaval des animaux and other landmark Romantic works; fewer know that he was an avid amateur astronomer.

Saint-Saëns was friends with the eminent French astronomer Camille Flammarion and participated in the Société Astronomique de France. His stature as a great French composer brought attention to the Société and astronomical research, and he contributed several articles to the group’s journal, Revue d’astronomie populaire.

This according to “Inspired by the skies? Saint-Saëns, amateur astronomer” by Léo Houziaux, an essay included in Camille Saint-Saëns  and his world (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 12–17).

Today is Saint-Saëns’s 180th birthday! Above, the composer (right) with Flammarion; below, Saint-Saëns adresses the heavens (Laudate, coeli!).

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The vocal tract organ

vocal tract organ


The vocal tract organ is a new musical instrument that consists of three-dimensional (3D)-printed vocal tracts (throat and mouth) for individual vowels sitting on loudspeakers to enable static vowel sounds to be produced.

The acoustic excitation from the loudspeakers is a synthesized version of the typical waveform produced by the vibrating human vocal folds during pitched sounds, which enables the instrument to be played from a keyboard.

The vocal tract organ will become an instrument in its own right, and it could be used as a direct replacement for the vox humana organ stop, given that its acoustic output is a much closer representation of the human vocal output than that from a vox humana organ pipe. The 3D-printed tracts may also be used  in vocal and choral workshops as well as degree-level music technology education.

This according to “The vocal tract organ and the vox humana organ stop” by David M. Howard (Journal of music, technology & education VII/3 [2014] pp. 265–277).

Above, an illustration from the article; below, a composition by Professor Howard.

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Music for cats. II

cat music 2

As we reported a few years ago, David Teie has composed music for cats. Now he has published, along with two colleagues, a report on a scientific study demonstrating this music’s efficacy.

They presented two examples of Teie’s cat music in counter-balanced order with two examples of human music and evaluated the behavior and response latencies of cats to each piece.

The cats showed a significant preference for and interest in species-appropriate music compared with human music (Median (IQR) 1.5 (0.5-2.0) acts for cat music, 0.25 (0.0-0.5) acts for human music, <P><0.002) and responded with significantly shorter latencies (Median (IQR) 110.0 (54-138.75) s for cat music, 171.75 (151-180) s for human music (<P>< 0.001). Younger and older cats were more responsive to cat music than middle-aged acts (cubic trend, <r>2 = 0.477, <P>< 0.001).

This according to “Cats prefer species-appropriate music” by Teie, Charles T. Snowdon, and Megan Savage (Applied animal behavior science 20 February 2015).

Below, Samantha demonstrates with Cozmo’s air.


Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Science

Musik und Klangkultur


In 2014 transcript Verlag launched the series Musik und Klangkultur with Musik—Raum—Technik: Zur Entwicklung und Anwendung der graphischen Programmierumgebung Max.

The book discusses the visual programming language for music and multimedia known as Max. After over two decades of development and application, Max has become a sort of international lingua franca in practically-oriented music, art, and media institutions. A complete cultural-historical survey is presented, in which the software figures as the product of a specific sphere of aesthetic practice, which retroactively evokes innovative production structures. The focus of the analysis thus becomes the reciprocal influences of technological and artistic production.

Below, a demonstration of Percussa AudioCubes, an electronic musical instrument that allows users to create Max/Msp patches using an OSC server.

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Hermit thrush pitch preferences


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.

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Slime mold music

Physarum polycephalum

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.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Nature, Science

Inebriated zebra finches


zebra finches

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.

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Practicing vs. born that way

Carrivick sisters

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).

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Men with guitar cases


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

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