Category Archives: Science

Leon Fleisher’s second act

In 1964, while preparing for a tour of the USSR, Leon Fleisher experienced the first signs of a problem. Two of the fingers of his right hand began to curl uncontrollably; within 10 months they were clenched in a fist. He was not in pain, and medical experts were baffled.

“I guess my fantasy was that with the same mystery with which it had appeared, it would disappear,” he said in a 2007 interview. His attempts to regain control of his fingers ran the gamut from A to Z, he said, “from aromatherapy to Zen Buddhism.” Meanwhile, he redirected his musical energies to performing the left-hand repertory, teaching, and conducting.

Finally, some 30 years later, a diagnosis of focal dystonia, a neurological disorder linked to repetitive tasks, led to an experimental treatment involving Botox injections.

His comeback catapulted him as a symbol of the human spirit and an inspiration to a broader public. Egon Petri’s transcription of Bach’s Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze) has become something of a signature piece, a staple of Fleisher’s solo programs. It is to his mind “the antiterror piece of our time.”

This according to “The pianist Leon Fleisher: A life-altering debility, reconsidered” by Holly Brubach (The New York times, 12 June 2007).

Today is Fleisher’s 90th birthday! Above, a photo by Eli Turner; below, the sublime Bach work.

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Filed under Performers, Science

Beats and bites

In an experiment, eleven subjects unknowingly participated in a study of the effects of music tempo on the number of bites per minute and the total time of the meal.

Three music conditions were used: fast tempo, slow tempo, and no music. A significant increase in the number of bites per minute was found for the fast-tempo condition, suggesting arousal as a possible mediator. No difference was found in total time of meal.

A questionnaire revealed no evidence that subjects were aware of the music.

This according to “The effect of music on eating behavior” by Thomas C. Roballey et al. (Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society XXIII/3 [1985] pp. 221–22). Many thanks to Improbable research for bringing this study to our attention!

Above and below, do diners chew faster at the Hard Rock Cafe?

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Filed under Curiosities, Food, Science

Singing flames

 

As early as the 18th century physicists were experimenting with tones produced by the effect  of flames on nearby glass tubes, and in 1873 the physicist Georges Frédéric Eugène Kastner developed a keyboard pyrophone.

More recently, singing flames have been featured in mixed media works by artists such as Andreas Oldörp, whose Singende Flammen (1988) was installed in a preexisting tunnel beneath Hamburg’s Hans-Albers-Platz. Composers who have used singing flames in their work include Alvin Lucier.

This according to “Singende Flammen: Andreas Oldörps Arbeiten zwischen Experiment und Installation” by Volker Straebel (Neue Zeitschrift für Musik CLX/2 [März-April 1999] pp. 45–47).

Above, Kastner’s pyrophone; below, two views of singing flames in Sydney’s Darling Harbour in 2011.

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Filed under Acoustics, Curiosities, Instruments, Science

Bicycles as interactive instruments

Movable Party is a mobile, real-time interactive music system where audience-participants pedal stationary bicycles to generate power and perform interactive music, creating a bustling public and streetside vibrancy in the decentralized metropolis of Los Angeles.

The system consists of three stationary bicycles, each equipped with rear wheel hub motors that generate enough energy to power a medium-sized public address system. The bicycles are also equipped with sensors to track rear wheel speed as well as rider position, transforming them into interactive musical instruments in two different modes: Interactive DJ and Step Sequencer.

The Interactive DJ mode enables a laptop performer to create and mix music with data from the three bicycles. The Step Sequencer mode enables rider-participants to directly control a three-voice, eight-step sequencer. Sonic mappings are focused on representation of rear wheel speed, which translates directly to power generation.

This according to “Movable Party: A bicycle-powered system for interactive musical performance” by Steven Kemper, Wendy F. Hsu, Carey Sargent, Josef Taylor, and Linda Wei, an essay included in Music technology meets philosophy: From digital echos to virtual ethos (San Francisco: International Computer Music Association, 2014).

Many thanks to Pryor Dodge for bringing this to our attention! Above and below, Movable Party in action.

#bicycle

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Science

Vinko Dvořák and Croatian musical life

The acoustic physicist Vinko Dvořák was a gifted violinist and a tireless promoter of music in Croatia. As a member of the board of the Hrvatski Glazbeni Zavod between 1913 and 1919, he took an active part in organizing and financing musical events, and the Zavod za Fiziku at the Sveučilište u Zagrebu, where he was a professor of physics, owned an extensive collection of musical forks and instruments.

Dvořák kept encouraging young Croatians to develop and succeed in music until his death, and in his will he left a notable amount of money for the education of promising music students.

This according to “Vinko Dvořák: Fizičar sa sluhom za glazbu i glazbeno darovita duša u fizici” by Branko Hanžek (Tonovi: Časopis glazbenih pedagoga XV/2:36 [prosinac 2000] pp. 41–43).

Today is Dvořák’s 170th birthday! Below, a tour of the Hrvatski Glazbeni Zavod, which still looks much like it did in Dvořák’s time.

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Filed under Acoustics, Romantic era, Science

Jazz and unexpected stimuli

Creativity has been defined as the ability to produce work that is novel, high in quality, and appropriate to an audience. While the nature of the creative process is under debate, many believe that creativity relies on real-time combinations of known neural and cognitive processes.

One useful model of creativity comes from musical improvisation, such as in jazz, in which musicians spontaneously create novel sound sequences. A study used jazz musicians to test the hypothesis that individuals with training in musical improvisation, which entails creative generation of musical ideas, might process expectancy differently.

Researchers used EEGs to compare the brain activity of 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the examples followed typical Western chord progressions, while others followed atypical ones.

Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progressions, indicating that they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.

This according to “Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity” by Emily Przysinda, Tima Zheng, Kellyn Maves, Cameron Arkin, and Psyche Loui (Brain and cognition CXIX [December 2017] pp. 45–53).

Below, the Miles Davis Quintet plays Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, a work often cited for its use of unexpected chords; above, Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock in 1964.

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Science

Sweet & sour music

Two experiments investigated the influence of the harmonic content of background music on taste perception.

The participants evaluated samples of mixed fruit juice while listening to soundtracks that had either been harmonized with consonant or dissonant musical intervals. Each sample of juice was rated on three computer-based scales: One scale was anchored with the words sour and sweet, while the other two scales involved hedonic ratings of the music and of the juice.

Participants reliably associated the consonant soundtracks with sweetness and the dissonant soundtracks with sourness, rating the juices as tasting significantly sweeter in the consonant than in the dissonant music condition, irrespective of the melody or instrumentation involved. These results provide empirical support for the claim that the crossmodal correspondence between basic taste and a higher-level musical attribute (harmony in this case) can be used to modify the evaluation of the taste of a drink.

This according to “Striking a sour note: Assessing the influence of consonant and dissonant music on taste perception” by Charles Spence (above) and Qian Janice Wang (Multisensory research XXIX/1–3 [2016] pp. 195–208).

Another post about Professor Spence’s research is here. Below, some consonance and dissonance imaging.

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Filed under Curiosities, Science

A saxophone in surgery

When doctors discovered a tumor in Dan Fabbio’s brain, he began a long journey involving a team of physicians, scientists, and a music professor that culminated with him awake and playing a saxophone as surgeons operated on him.

A professional musician and music teacher, Fabbio suddenly started to experience hallucinations, and a visit to a hospital led to a CAT scan that indicated a brain tumor. It appeared to be benign, but doctors were concerned about its proximity to a brain region that is responsible for music processing.

Fabbio was referred to the neurosurgeon Web Pilcher, who contacted Elizabeth Marvin, a music theorist who also specializes in music cognition, and together they developed a series of cognitive musical tests that Fabbio could perform while researchers were conducting brain scans. Using this information, the team produced a highly detailed three-dimensional map of Fabbio’s brain that would be used to help guide the surgeons in the operating room.

The surgeons wanted to know if they were successful in preserving Fabbio’s ability to perform music, so they decided to bring his saxophone into the operating room; once the tumor had been removed, they gave the go-ahead for Fabbio to play it.  “It made you want to cry,” said Marvin.  “He played it flawlessly and when he finished the entire operating room erupted in applause.”

This according to “Saxophonist is told to play while undergoing brain surgery” by Norman Lebrecht (Slipped disc 30 August 2017). Below, a brief documentary fleshes out the story.

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Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse und Musik

Psychoanalytic studies of the arts have mainly focused on visual art, literature, and film; launched by Psychosozial-Verlag in 2017, Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse und Musik (ISSN 2367-2498) aims to fill the gap with psychoanalytic explorations of music.

The journal addresses musicians, musicologists, and cultural scientists as well as psychoanalysts and psychotherapists; its interdisciplinary approach illuminates seldom-noted connections between academic fields. The inaugural volume, edited by Sebastian Leikert and Antje Niebuhr, focuses on the unconscious meanings of interrelationships between music and language.

Below, the finale of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a work discussed in the journal’s first issue.

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Filed under New periodicals, Opera, Science

Drumming cockatoos

 

All human societies have music with a rhythmic beat, typically produced with percussive instruments such as drums. The set of capacities that allows humans to produce and perceive music appears to be deeply rooted in human biology, but an understanding of its evolutionary origins requires cross-taxa comparisons.

Drumming by palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) shares the key rudiments of human instrumental music, including manufacture of a sound tool, performance in a consistent context, regular beat production, repeated components, and individual styles.

Throughout 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at nonrandom, regular intervals; yet individual males differed significantly in the distribution parameters of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles. Autocorrelation analyses of the longest drumming sequences further showed that they were highly regular and predictable, like human music.

These discoveries provide a rare comparative perspective on the evolution of rhythmicity and instrumental music in our own species, and show that a preference for a regular beat can have other origins before being co-opted into group-based music and dance.

This according to “Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music” by Robert Heinsohn, Christina N. Zdenek, et al. (Science advances III/6 [2017]).

Above, a male cockatoo (right) drumming with a stick for a female; below, a video produced by the research team.

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Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Science