Category Archives: Science

Snowball gets down


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

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Anatomy of an earworm


The experience of earworms, a type of involuntary musical imagery, may reflect a systematic failure in mental control.

A recent study focused on how individual differences in each of two factors—schizotypy, or openness to experience, and thought suppression—might relate to the appearance of the involuntary musical image (earworm). Each was found to contribute independently to the overall experience of involuntary musical imagery.

Schizotypy was correlated with the length and disruptiveness of earworms, the difficulty with which they were dismissed, and the worry they caused, but was not correlated with the frequency of such intrusive imagery.

In turn, schizotypy was predicted by suppression and intrusion associated with the length, disruptiveness, difficulty dismissing, and interference, but not with the worry caused or the frequency of earworms. The assumption of ownership of earworms was also found to affect the extent to which the earworms were considered worrying.

This according to “Individual differences in mental control predict involuntary musical imagery” by C. Philip Beaman and Tim I. Williams (Musicæ scientiæ: The journal of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music XVII/4 [December 2013] pp. 398–409).

Above, an alternative way to assume ownership of earworms. Below, DJ Earworm’s annual mashup of the top 25 pop hits.

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Vivaldi and Venetian wind

Giorgione Tempesta_edited-1

The prevalent air regimes dominating Venice include the regional sirocco (scirocco) wind and the strong and gusty local bora (borea, a föhn wind, from the Latin ventus favonius). The bora blows in from either the north (the Alps) or from the west (the Balkans), raising temperatures and lowering humidity; it is typically accompanied by low clouds and reduced visibility.

Vivaldi’s instrumental compositions, especially those with programmatic implications, abound with musical illustrations of winds and their rhetorical satellites. Three out of his four solo violin concertos that make up Le quattro staggioni (1725) feature winds as protagonists controlling both the imagery and the attached sonnets and the music itself.

Vivaldi’s operatic librettos are especially abundant in such allegorical keywords and rhetorical interplay. Winds and breezes, along with other stereotypical concetti—symbolic representations of animals (lion, hind, snake), various birds (goldfinch, nightingale, swallow), and butterflies—abound in his operatic arias. Often the direct verbal use of “wind” is substituted with its rhetorical alternatives such as tempest (tempesta), thunder (tuono), storm (borasca), air vortices (vortici), flashes and lightings (lampi), high sea waves (onde), clouds (nouvole), and others. The fact that most of Vivaldi’s operatic librettos were provided or adapted by local writers suggests that the wind was a symbol common to the entire Venetian tradition.

This according to “Sirocco, borea, e tutti i venti: Wind allegory in Venetian music” by Bella Brover-Lubovsky, an essay included in Musik—Raum—Akkord—Bild: Festschrift zum 65. Geburtstag von Dorothea Baumann (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012, pp. 149–162).

Above,  a detail from Giorgione’s La tempesta, a depiction of Venetian weather from the early 16th century. Below, Vivaldi’s celebrated depiction from Le quattro staggioni.

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Mice at the opera

singing mouse

In an experiment, researchers performed heart transplants on mice and studied the subsequent effects of music on their alloimmune responses.

The researchers exposed different groups of the recuperating mice to three types of recorded music—a collection of works by Mozart, the album The best of Enya, and Verdi’s La traviata—and a single sound frequency as a control. After seven days their results indicated that the mice who listened to La traviata had developed superior alloimmune responses.

This according to “Auditory stimulation of opera music induced prolongation of murine cardiac allograft survival and maintained generation of regulatory CD4+CD25+ cells” by Masateru Uchiyama, et al. (Journal of cardiothoracic surgery VII/26 [2010]). Many thanks to the Improbable Research Blog for sharing this study with us!

Below, we invite you to improve your own alloimmune responses while contemplating animated party food.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Opera, Science

Computational ethnomusicology

Block diagram

The June 2013 issue of Journal of new music research (XLII/2) is a special issue devoted to computational ethnomusicology.

The editors, Emilia Gómez, Perfecto Herrera, and Francisco Gómez-Martin, explain that the term computational ethnomusicology is over 30 years old, but it has recently been redefined as “the design, development, and usage of computer tools that have the potential to assist in ethnomusicological research.”

Above, a diagram of the Tarsos platform from “Tarsos, a modular platform for precise pitch analysis of Western and non-Western music” by Joren Six, Olmo Cornelis, and Marc Leman (pp. 113–29). Below, a vintage computer cover of The house of the rising sun.

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Skulls and musical (non)preference

brain mri

This Halloween, let’s see what a series of experiments demonstrated about the influence of skull resonance on music preference.

Listeners were presented with a set of original melodies and were asked to judge how much they enjoyed each selection.

Following the melody judgments, the resonance of each listener’s skull was recorded by firmly pressing a microphone against the temporal bone while the listener tapped on his or her head. The complex spectra recording from this tapping was analyzed to determine the fundamental resonant frequency of that person’s skull.

The skull was not found to directly influence the melodies that the participants selected at all. Participants preferred a wide range of musical keys and these musical keys had no simple relationship to the resonance of the skulls.

However, skull resonance was found to moderately predict the musical keys that people disliked. Unlike the preferred music, the disliked music tended to be found in a very narrow set of musical keys. In addition, the fundamental frequency of the musical keys themselves tended to have a clear set of non-integer, complex mathematical ratios to the skull.

In short, this research suggests that the skull might influence the music that a person dislikes rather than the music a person likes.

This according to “Music of the body: An investigation of skull resonance and its influence on musical preference” by Jitwipar Suwangbutra, et al. (Acoustical Society of America: 165th Acoustical Society of America Meeting/21st International Congress on Acoustics/52nd Meeting of the Canadian Acoustical Association: Lay papers, 2013).

Many thanks to the Improbable Research blog for bringing this to our attention! Below, The Skulls discuss funding for future projects.

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Hens, noise, and music


Two experiments explored the effects of specific sound stimuli on laying hens.

The first measured heterophil to lymphocyte ratio and tonic immobility duration in 216 36-week-old hens exposed to specific noise stimuli of 65 dB (background chicken vocalizations and fans, control) or 90 dB (background noises plus truck, train, and aircraft noises) for 60 minutes. The measurements showed that the hens exposed to 90 dB noise were more stressed and fearful than control hens.

The second experiment measured heterophil to lymphocyte ratio and tonic immobility duration in 108 36-week-old hens exposed to background noises (65 dB) or to classical music plus background noises (75 dB) between 9.00 and 14.00 for three days. The measurements showed that the hens exposed to classical music were more fearful than control hens.

Overall, the results indicate that loud noise causes stress and fear in laying hens, and classical music influences their fearfulness.

This according to “Effects of specific noise and music stimuli on stress and fear levels of laying hens of several breeds” by José Luis Campo Chávarri, et al. (Applied animal behavior science XCI/1–2 [May 2005] pp. 75–84. Below, perhaps the ballet of the unhatched chicks.

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Dance Your PhD


In 2008 Science magazine and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science hosted the first ever Dance Your PhD Contest in Vienna.

Calls for submission to subsequent annual Dance Your PhD contests followed suit, attracting hundreds of entries.

For these contests, practitioners transform their bodies into animating media and conduct body experiments to test their hypotheses. This body-work offers a medium through which they can communicate the nuanced details of their findings among students and colleagues. The Dance Your PhD contests expand and extend what it is possible for scientific researchers to see, say, imagine, and feel.

This according to “Dance Your PhD: Embodied animations, body experiments, and the affective entanglements of life science research” by Natasha Myers (Body & society XVIII/1 [2012] pp. 151–189). Above and below, the winning dance from 2012.

BONUS: John Bohannon, who started the contest, presents a TED talk about it here.

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Pachelbel and immune response


In an experiment, 80 students were each randomly assigned to one of four treatment conditions: no treatment (control), music only, imagery only, and music and imagery combined.

The first group was asked to sit quietly for 17 minutes. The second group listened to a recording of Pachelbel’s D-major canon. The third treatment used directed imagery to help the subjects visualize the bone marrow, a primary source of lymphocyte production, and the radiation of cleansing lymphocytes to various areas of the body. The fourth treatment combined the music and the directed imagery.

The second, third, and fourth treatments resulted in significant increases in the subjects’ immune response. The fourth treatment, however, did not show a significant increase over those of the second and third.

This according to “The effects of music and biological imagery on immune response (S-IgA)” by Chung Tsao Chien, et al., an essay included in Applications of music in medicine (Washington, D.C.: National Association for Music Therapy, 1991, pp. 85–121.

Today is Pachelbel’s 360th birthday! Below, Rob Paravonian discusses other uses of the celebrated canon in D.

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19th-century acoustical research

manometric capsule

The 19th century was a golden age for the invention of acoustical research instruments—tools for measuring audible frequencies or the speed of sound, or for making sound visible.

Advancements in instrument making and voice physiology paralleled advancements in sound recording, reproduction, and transmission. Apparatuses developed during that time included tuning forks, sirens, sonorous pipes, singing and sensitive flames, manometric capsules, and resonators.

This according to “1800–1900: Un secolo di strumenti per lo studio dell’acustica/1800–1900: A century of instruments for the study of acoustics” by Paolo Brenni, an essay included in L’acustica e suoi strumenti: La collezione dell’Istituto Tecnico Toscano/Acoustics and its instruments: The collection of the Istituto Tecnico Toscano (Firenze: Giunti, 2001, pp. 57–72).

Above, a manometric capsule; below, Professor Henry Higgins demonstrates a sensitive flame, using a rotating mirror for isolating the flame’s oscillations.

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