Category Archives: Science

Mindfulness and music learning

The practice of mindfulness can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that counteracts the effects of stress in our minds and bodies. Research on mindfulness and meditation has shown that these practices have the capacity to decrease the size of the amygdala, known as the brain’s “panic button” in charge of responses associated with fear, anxiety and strong emotions.

Mindfulness has become increasingly common in the workplace, the healthcare profession, and many school programs.  In recent years, the incorporation of deep breathing techniques, mindful movements, and guided visualizations has also been used at all levels of music teaching, allowing students to leave stressors behind while fully engaging in the learning experience. For instance, when music students learn to utilize their breath as an anchor, they learn to connect to the present moment, to reflect on their playing with self-compassion, and to nurture deeper listening skills.

Some of the possible benefits of mindfulness for musicians include:

Improvement of students’ mood during lessons, making the learning process a positive experience.

Increased body awareness and mind/body connection, promoting healthy technique.

Decreased tension while playing. Increased active listening, shaping, phrasing and musicality.

Improvement in capacity to focus and concentrate during lessons and performances.

Improvement in memorization and reduction in performance anxiety.

Increased self-compassion and kindness in the face of mistakes.

Celebrate International Education Day (January 24) by reading “Mindfulness in music teaching: Practical applications to piano lessons” by Fernanda Nieto (MTNA e-journal 14.3 [February 2023], 28-29). Find it in RILM Abstracts with Full Text.

Below are further ideas from the text related to mindfulness and piano instruction.

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Filed under Music education, Science

The emergence of the digital humanities

Digital humanities is an umbrella term for branches of humanities disciplines (such as linguistics, literature, history, music, art and religious studies) in which digital technologies are used: as the application of digital technologies and methods humanities objects (e.g., works of music, literature, art) or as the application of humanities methods to digital objects (e.g. digital sound recordings, videos, websites and graphics). Examples of such interdisciplinary applications include digital coding, storage, archiving, searching, processing, and analysis of humanities objects as well as historical, linguistic, cultural research into digital objects.

Today, digital humanities methods are a part of all humanities research. The digital humanities emerged from the first applications of digital calculators and computers in humanities research in the 1950s, primarily in linguistics, but soon also included music research and other disciplines. Since then, its importance has grown steadily with the development of new computer and software technologies.

The basis of many digital music research projects is the digital storage and notation of music. In the mid-1950s, a project at Bell Telephone Laboratories led by Max Matthews (1926–2011, pictured above) developed technology to transmit telephone conversations in digitized form, the MUSIC-N series was the first computer program to generate digital audio through direct synthesis. MUSIC I (1957) and MUSIC II (1958) synthesized simple sounds over a limited number of triangular wave functions. However, it was not until MUSIC III (1960) that the first comprehensive synthesis program emerged. MUSIC IV (mid-1960s) was rewritten in the FORTRAN programming language and revised and expanded as MUSIC V in 1969 at Bell Laboratories. MUSIC V offered more global sound control, the ability to represent individual notes and note patterns, and supported the simulation of performance nuances (such as ritardando and crescendo). MUSIC V’s global parameter differentiation and event list were also precursors to the standard MIDI file format. Today, SAOL (1999) is a MUSIC-N programming language that is part of the MPEG-4 audio standard.

The Plaine & Easy Code was developed by Murray Gould in the early 1964s and later expanded by Gould and Berry S. Brook. It was intended to enable the transfer of musical bibliographic data to electronic data processing devices. The Plaine & Easy Code was a purely monolinear notation, encoded with normal typewriter symbols, with which not only tempo, key, meter, pitch, and durations could be encoded but also some phrasing and ornamentation symbols. Below is an example of the notation.

Below Max Mathews demonstrates his Radio Baton Controller and Conductor software program and performs brief selections by Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven.

Here are some related Bibliolore posts:

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Filed under North America, Science, Sound

The brain, age, and music education

Music teachers often deal with clients that are children or young adults. Researchers from the field of neuroscience and the aging brain have, however, demonstrated that music education benefits the brain and cognition throughout a person’s lifespan. They also have noticed the existence of patterns of decline from early adulthood in processing speed and accelerating declines in memory and reasoning. The development and refinement of neuroimaging techniques within the last twenty years or so has allowed for exploration of how the behavior and neurophysiology of musicians may differ (if at all) from non-musicians. Music training affects a wide range of cognitive abilities associated with brain enhancement including verbal processing, intelligence, reading, auditory processing, decision-making, and so on. Researchers have also found enhancements in cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency in musicians.

Music training also may induce neuroplastic changes and enhancements. Firstly, brain volume (gray matter and white matter) increases with musical training. Playing a musical instrument has been associated with increased white matter thickness in motor, premotor, and supplementary motor, prefrontal and parietal cortices–in other words, brain volume increases occur with musical training. Secondly, musical training changes connectivity and functional connectivity in the brain. Research has found that changes in the auditory-motor network for young adults over 18 beginning music training suggest that music training can influence brain plasticity even after brain maturation is almost complete.

In some cases, older adults with at least 10 years of musical experience displayed better performance in far-transfer tasks such as nonverbal memory, naming, and executive functioning tests than non-musicians or musicians with less than 10 years of musical experience. Other benefits include reduced age-related decline of fluid intelligence in older musicians, increased inhibition, and increased executive functioning. Overall, current research suggests that lifelong engagement in musical training maintains the brain in a younger state and enhances neural functioning.

Read more in “Music education and the aging brain” by Patricia Izbicki and Christina L. Svec (Contributions to music education 47 [2022], RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2022-6592.

The above image is a mapping of human brain connectivity featuring dorsal and lateral views.

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Filed under Pedagogy, Science

Mbiras as sensors

The frequencies of pitches produced by a musical instrument are determined by the physical properties of the instrument. Consequently, by measuring the frequency of a pitch, one can infer information about the instrument’s physical properties. By modifying a musical instrument to contain a sample and then analyzing the instrument’s pitch, one can make precision measurements of the physical properties of the sample.

Researchers used the mbira, a 3000-year-old African instrument that consists of metal tines attached to a wooden board; these tines are plucked to play musical pitches. By replacing the mbira’s tines with bent steel tubing, filling the tubing with a sample, using a smartphone to record the sound while plucking the tubing, and measuring the frequency of the sound using a free software tool available on their website, they could measure the density of the sample with a resolution of about 0.012 g/mL.

To demonstrate the mbira sensor’s capabilities, they used it to successfully distinguish diethylene glycol and glycerol, two similar chemicals that are sometimes mistaken for each other in pharmaceutical manufacturing (leading to hundreds of deaths).

Unlike existing tools for measuring density, the mbira sensor can be made and used by virtually anyone in the world with access to a smartphone and the free software tool posted on the Internet. Among many possible applications, consumers could use mbira sensors to detect counterfeit and adulterated medications (which represent around 10% of all medications in low- and middle-income countries).

This according to “Musical instruments as sensors” by Heran C. Bhakta, Vamsi K. Choday, and William H. Grover (ACS omega III [2018] 11026–32; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-95175). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this article to our attention!

Above, (A, left to right) a conventional mbira, the same instrument with the tines replaced by a length of stainless steel tubing bent into a U shape, and an example easily made from scrap lumber and hardware; (B) the method of using an mbira sensor; and (C) a waveform plot of a sound recording of plucking an mbira sensor, obtained using a smartphone’s voice recorder app and the free online software tool.

Below, Stella Rambisai Chiweshe demonstrates traditional Zimbabwean mbira playing.

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Doktor Eisenbarth’s musical clock

The medieval German town Hann. Münden was home to Johann Andreas Eisenbarth (1663–1727), a colorful figure who became a subject of folklore to the extent that fact and fiction are now difficult to untangle.

A celebrated surgeon who was bestowed with privileges by various members of German royalty, Eisenbarth had no formal medical credentials, nor was he ever officially awarded the title “Doctor”. Nevertheless, his skill and medical innovations are matters of historical record, not least his pioneering contributions to the development of cataract surgery.

Reputed to have traveled with an entourage of up to 120 attendants including musicians, acrobats, and clowns, he is said to have plied his trade in a carnival-like atmosphere. The loud music and revelry served both to attract large crowds—potential customers for Eisenbarth’s services and bottled remedies—and to drown out the cries of his patients, who underwent procedures including tooth extractions and amputations in an era before the advent of anesthetics.

In honor of this now semi-legendary resident, a mechanical clock was installed in the upper story of Hann. Münden’s Rathaus in 1980. After the stroke of noon and a brief pause, an automatic carillon plays the tune of the comical song Ich bin der Doktor Eisenbart as automata depict the doctor extracting a huge, bloody tooth from the mouth of a terrified, gesticulating patient restrained by a hammer-wielding attendant. In addition to these central figures, a juggler, an acrobat, and a flag-bearer suggest the festive nature of Eisenbarth’s medical procedures.

This according to “Dr Eisenbarth’s automated musical clock in Hann. Münden” by Mark Singleton and Sven Heinmann (The music box: An international journal of mechanical music XXVIII/5 [spring 2018] pp. 185–87; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-52039).

Today is Eisenbarth’s 360th birthday! Above and below, the good doctor in action.

BONUS: A chance to sing along!

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Filed under Curiosities, Humor, Instruments, Science

Skulls and music (non)preference

Related image

This Halloween, let’s see what a series of experiments demonstrated about the influence of skull resonance on music (non)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; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2013-5013).

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

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Paganini and Marfan syndrome

Since the 1950s scientists have increasingly agreed that Paganini was probably a victim of Marfan syndrome—although beneficiary seems a more appropriate word than victim.

The typical characteristics of this pathological condition—a tall, thin body and particularly long, thin arms and hands—are perfectly in keeping with the virtuoso’s somatic characteristics, noted by all who described him and confirmed by the concert sketch by the writer and painter Johann Peter Lyser, the only artist known to have reproduced the violinist’s exact physiology (above; click to enlarge).

There can be no doubt that Paganini’s abnormal ligaments—together, of course, with his extraordinary musical talent—were a definite advantage in his chosen career.

This according to “Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840)” by G. Sperati and D. Felisati (Acta Otorhinolaryngologica Italica XXV/2 [April 2005] pp. 125–128; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-51589).

Today is Paganini’s 240th birthday! Below, Jascha Heifetz plays the composer’s Caprice, op. 1, no. 24.

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Filed under Performers, Romantic era, Science

Music for cats

David Teie has composed music for cats, and he has published, along with two colleagues, a report on a scientific study demonstrating this music’s efficacy.

The report presents two examples of Teie’s cat music in counter-balanced order with two examples of human music, and evaluates 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, r2 = 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; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-1206).

Today is International Cat Day! Below, Teie sketches the background of his music for cats, followed by brief samples.

BONUS: One of our favorite scientific studies of cat behavior is here.


Filed under Animals, Curiosities, Science

Mozart’s vitamin deficiency

Several hypotheses regarding the cause of Mozart’s death have been advanced, but until now none have noted the likelihood that a very low level of vitamin D in his system contributed to his untimely demise.

Mozart did most of his composing at night, so he must have slept during much of the day, minimizing his exposure to sunlight. Further, at Vienna’s latitude (48°N) it is impossible for the body to make vitamin D from solar ultraviolet-B irradiance for about six months of the year.

The composer died on 5 December 1791, about three months into the Vienna winter; since the half-life of vitamin D in the human body is four to six weeks, his level of the nutrient would have been very low—an important risk factor for infectious diseases.

This according to “Vitamin D deficiency contributed to Mozart’s death” by William B. Grant and Stefan Pilz (Medical problems of performing artists XXVI/2 [June 2011] p.117; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-3181).

Below, Jerry Hadley discusses solar irradiance in “Si spande al sole in faccia nube talor così” from Mozart’s Il rè pastore.

More articles about Mozart are here.


Filed under Classic era, Curiosities, Science

Synesthesia with trombones

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 trombones, while it matched well with the piano. Orange-flower went with trombones but not with strings, while coffee failed to correspond with brass instruments but suited woodwinds nicely. “Our results”, the researchers noted cannily, “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] 1994–2002; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-7050).

Below, the picante trombones of Willie Colón’s band, ca. 1969.

More posts about synesthesia are here.


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