Category Archives: Science

The esoteric phonograph

Edison phonograph

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

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iPhone ocarinas and stress recovery

iPhone ocarina

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 [2013] pp. 23–46).

Above and below, the iPhone ocarina in action.

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Voices from the past

Carl Haber, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

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.

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Publications of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology

music-ritual

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.

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Snowball gets down

Snowball

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

earworms

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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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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