Tag Archives: Psychology

Men with guitar cases

oscar-isaac-in-inside-llewyn-davis

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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Bach and personal conflict

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s life was shaken by several confrontations and traumatic events that had important repercussions on his personal and professional development.

One of the first documented conflicts with authority occurred when he was just nine years old, following the loss of both of Bach’s parents, when his brother Johann Christoph confiscated a manuscript that Sebastian had copied behind his back. When this event is conceptualized in terms of recent research on coping with trauma and trauma recovery, it reveals Bach’s sense of vulnerability to authorities and the establishment of a lifelong approach to resolving conflict.

Patterns of action throughout Bach’s early career reveal efforts towards autonomy and independence through outward resolutions of conflicts with authority. When he was in Leipzig the authorities’ lack of enthusiasm for music made him consider departing from this prestigious position. His previous conflicts with authorities resulted in just such a departure; however, his decision to stay in Leipzig reflects a different mode of conflict resolution, one that involves inward reflection rather than assertive confrontation.

This according to “From Ohrdruf to Mühlhausen: A subversive reading of Bach’s relationship to authority” by Sara Botwinick (BACH: Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute XXXV/2 [2004] pp. 1–59).

Above, Bach as he may have appeared in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig; below, the beautifully reflective Ich habe genug, BWV 82, from February 1727, four years into his Leipzig tenure.

Related article: Bach’s youthful indescretions

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Routledge research in music

Routledge inaugurated the series Routledge research in music in July 2011 with Music, science, and the rhythmic brain: Cultural and clinical implications, edited by Jonathan Berger and Gabe Turow.

The collection focuses on the effects of repetitive musical rhythm on the brain and nervous system, integrating diverse fields including ethnomusicology, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, religious studies, music therapy, and human health. The authors present aspects of musical rhythm and biological rhythms, and in particular rhythmic entrainment, in a way that considers cultural context alongside theoretical research and discussions of potential clinical and therapeutic implications.

Considering the effects of drumming and other rhythmic music on mental and bodily functioning, the authors show how rhythmic music can have a dramatic impact on mental states, sometimes catalyzing profound changes in arousal, mood, and emotional states through the stimulation of changes in physiological functions like the electrical activity in the brain.

Included are discussions of experiments using electroencephalography (EEG), galvanic skin response (GSR), and subjective measures to gain insight into how these mental states are evoked and what their relationship is to the music and the context of the experience, demonstrating that these phenomena occur in a consistent and reproducible fashion and suggesting clinical applications.

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The beginnings of music

The eminent British psychologist Charles Samuel Myers, CBE (1873–1946), joined an anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait and Sarawak in 1898, and his studies of musical traditions in those places resulted in several articles. Like many of his contemporaries, he suspected that the study of ethnic traditions could help to tease out universals and illuminate the origins of music.

In “The beginnings of music” (Essays and studies presented to William Ridgeway on his sixtieth birthday [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913, pp. 560–582]) Myers provides detailed descriptions of the musical traditions of the Meriam people of Murray Island, Australia, the Vedda people of Sri Lanka, and the peoples of Sarawak. The Vedda examples suggest an evolution of the scale as a synthesis of steps, theSarawak examples suggest scalar evolution as a filling-in of larger intervals, and the Meriam examples suggest a synthesis of the two approaches.

Myers concludes that the beginnings of music depend on eight factors: (1) discrimination between tones and noises; (2) awareness of differences in pitch, volume, duration, and quality; (3) awareness of absolute pitch; (4) recognition and use of small, approximately equal intervals; (5) recognition and use of larger consonant intervals, and awareness of their relationships to smaller ones; (6) melodic phrasing; (7) rhythmic phrasing; and (8) musical meaning.

The article was reprinted in Music, words and voice: A reader, edited by Martin Clayton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008, pp. 21–23). Above, the MurrayIsland courthouse and community hall in a photograph from the 1898 expedition that Myers joined.

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Synesthesia with wine

In an experiment, 250 adults were offered a glass of wine in return for answering a few questions about its taste. After clearing their palates, each received a glass of either cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay and was taken to one of five rooms: four that each featured a different type of music playing in a continuous loop, and a silent one serving as a control. Participants were asked to spend about five minutes sipping the wine, and were told not to converse.

A smaller pilot study had determined the four types of music:

  • “powerful and heavy” (“O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina burana)
  • “subtle and refined” (“Вальс цветов” [Val’s cvetov/Waltz of the flowers] from Cajkovskij’s Щелкунчик [Ŝelkunčik/Nutcracker])
  • “zingy and refreshing” (Nouvelle Vague’s Just can’t get enough)
  • “mellow and soft” (Michael Brook’s Breakdown)

After drinking the wine and listening to the music, participants were asked to rate the wine’s taste on a scale from zero to ten in the categories represented by the music types. In each case, participants perceived the wine in a manner consistent with the music they had listened to while drinking it.

This according to “Wine & song: The effect of background music on the taste of wine” by Adrian C. North (Wineanorak, 2008). In an earlier experiment, documented in “The influence of in-store music on wine selections” (Journal of applied psychology LXXXIV/2 [April 1999] pp. 271–276), North and two colleagues demonstrated that playing music identified with a particular country in a wine shop had a positive influence on sales of wine from that country.

For a related post, see As bitter as a trombone. Below, Placido Domingo shares observations on wine and synesthesia from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.

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Psychology and early ethnomusicology

Charles Samuel Myers, CBE (1873–1946), who coined the term shell shock during World War I, was among the psychologists whose work fed into comparative musicology and, later, ethnomusicology. He joined an anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait and Sarawak in 1898, and his studies of musical traditions in those places resulted in several articles.

“The ethnological study of music” presents a glimpse of how psychologists viewed ethnic music around the turn of the century. In this essay, Myers points out that unfamiliar music may seem as disorderly and meaningless as unfamiliar language, but in both cases sufficient study and habituation reveal inherent order and meaning. All music serves an expressive function, he states, and universal elements such as rhythm, harmony, scale, and tonal center may serve as bases for cross-cultural comparisons.

Myers goes on to argue that the documentation and study of non-Western musics is an urgent matter, as traditions are already becoming polluted by outside sources. Fortunately, he notes, the advent of sound recording has greatly facilitated this enterprise, making it unnecessary for the ethnographer to transcribe performances during fieldwork. Myers ends with step-by-step instructions and procedural recommendations for making field recordings with the Edison-Bell phonograph (above).

This essay appears in Anthropological essays presented to Edward Burnett Tylor in honour of his 75th birthday (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907, pp. 235–253); the book is documented in our most recent printed bibliography, Liber amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.

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Sexual attraction by genre

In an experiment, male and female college undergraduates made and viewed videotaped presentations that included stating a preference for classical music, country music, soft rock, or heavy metal. These preferences were found to influence heterosexual attraction in specific ways.

Devotion to classical music and to heavy metal proved to be gender specific: A love of heavy metal greatly enhanced the appeal of men, but it proved detrimental to that of women, while a preference for classical music produced the opposite reactions. A love of country music was found to diminish attraction in both genders.

This according to “Effects of associating with musical genres on heterosexual attraction” by Dolf Zillmann and Azra Bhatia (Communication research XVI/2 [April 1989], pp. 263–288).

Below, Chuck Berry discusses genre preferences with some friends..

Related article: Air guitar and gender

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Herskovits and Freud

Numerous examples of the Freudian concept of repression may be observed in black cultures in Africa and the Americas. Though they do not use the Western term, these cultures involve a full awareness of repression and its attendant dangers for individuals and society, and they have developed therapeutic activities to mitigate it.

This according to the 1934 essay “Freudian mechanisms in primitive Negro psychology” by Melville J. Herskovits, which was included in Essays presented to C.G. Seligman (London: Kegan Paul International). While the word primitive has since been discredited, the piece is a milestone in the history of anthropology and is considered the first successful application of psychoanalytic theory in that field.

Herskovits explores how in many cases these therapeutic activities comprise satirical or insulting singing events that express what cannot be spoken directly, providing a release of repressed feelings in a socially supported framework. He discusses examples from Benin, Haiti, and Suriname, with particular attention to the Suriname Maroon lóbi singi ritual.

Usually performed by women, lóbi singi may comprise an exchange of insulting song verses, or it may involve a woman who socially redeems herself through singing satirical verses about her notorious past in alternation with a chorus of her peers; in both cases, social wounds are healed by the expression of repressed feelings.

This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here or on the Black studies category on the right to see a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.

Top: In 1929, Herskovits contemplates ritual objects that he collected in Suriname.

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As bitter as a trombone

Data from an experiment in which subjects listened to a series of pitches played on various instruments while tasting flavors such as lemon, peppermint, and salt showed significant connections between the sounds of the instruments and flavor perceptions.

For example, the taste of sugar was considered inappropriate for brass instruments, while it matched well with the piano. Orange-flower went with brass but not with strings, while coffee failed to correspond with brass but suited woodwinds nicely. “Our results”, the researchers noted with commendable practicality, “raise important questions about our representation of tastes and flavors and could also lead to applications in the marketing of food products.”

This according to “As bitter as a trombone: Synesthetic correspondences in nonsynesthetes between tastes/flavors and musical notes” by Anne-Sylvie Crisinel and Charles Spence (Attention, perception, and psychophysics LXXII/7 [October 2010], pp. 1994-2002). Thanks to the Improbable research blog for bringing this to our attention!

Below, the picante trombones of Willie Colón’s band, ca. 1967.

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Vexing the pianist

For an experiment involving both acoustical and MIDI data, the German pianist Armin Fuchs made an uninterrupted recording of Satie’s Vexations, fulfilling the composer’s apparent indication that the piece should be repeated 840 times; the performance lasted nearly 28 hours.

Tempo and loudness remained stable over the first 14 hours of alertness; after 15 hours a state of trance ensued, resulting in a destabilization of tempo followed by uncontrolled deviations in loudness.

This according to “Tempo and loudness analysis of a continuous 28-hour performance of Erik Satie’s composition Vexations” by Reinhard Kopiez, Marc Bangert, Werner Goebl, and Eckart Altenmüller (Journal of new music research XXXII/3 [September 2003], pp. 243–258).

Above, the full text of Satie’s composition. The official Satie website, which includes rare film footage, is here.


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