Saturday, October 10, 2009

“Aesthetic Responses of Music and Non-music Majors to Gradual Pitche Center Changes.”

Response # 2

Hancock, Carl B. “Aesthetic Responses of Music and Non-music Majors to Gradual Pitche Center Changes.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 178 (2008):85-94.


In this study Music and Non-Music majors were subjected to recordings of Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14 that were altered to either rise in pitch gradually or lower in pitch gradually. The pitch center was altered at 1/100 of a semitone per second. The resulting difference between the altered recording and the unaltered recording was 5.1 semitones. Their aesthetic responses were recorded using a Continuous Response Digital Interface (CDRI). The participants were instructed to turn the dial based on their “aesthetic response” to the music. The term “aesthetic response” was not defined for the participants. The purpose of the study was to investigate whether education in music affected the aesthetic response to a moving pitch center. Previous studies have found that participants with little music training respond similarly to those with advanced music training. However,  musicians are able to focus on listening to music for a longer period of time than non musicians. Great differences were found between the reactions of musicians and non musicians when asked to listen to extremely complex 20th century works. It was also found that performances tend to increase in pitch over time and musicians can discriminate flatness better than sharpness. In other studies musicians and non-musicians listened to several orchestral excerpts and modified versions with increased or decreased pitch center and/ or tempi. Both musicians and non musicians were more successful at discerning tempo changes, although they were all able to identify the pitch changes. Ultimately the study concluded that both music and non/music participants responded negatively to the performance where the pitch center lowered. Music majors were able to discern the upward shifting pitch center where non music participants reacted similarly to the unaltered version. All participants recorded similarly fluctuating levels of the aesthetic response that matched the climax of the piece. The study concludes by noting that pitch centers may change, but a performance can still be aesthetically pleasing, because, the ensemble is still relatively in tune with itself.


I’m not surprised that there was so much disparity amongst the responses to 20th century music. Alot of complex music is not enjoyable to listen to without some knowledge of the piece beforehand. I thought it was common knowledge that performances get sharper with time. I’m surprised that studies were done in 1974 and 1978 to prove this.

The article mentions a study that was done in 2004 where music majors listened to Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 and the pitch center increased one-cent every 1.2 second until a 300 cent pitch center change was attained. The results of the study showed that the music majors preferred the unaltered version, however they were unable to identify the pitch change in the altered version. I found this very interesting, because, I would expect a musician to notice an increase in sharpness. Perhaps because the change was so gradual even discerning ears cannot detect it. For me this emphasizes the idea that pitch is relative. 

I think the study is slightly faulty because, “Aesthetic response” was not defined for the participants and if they asked what it meant they were instructed to use their own understanding of the term. Their responses were dictated by their individual definition of “aesthetic response” which creates another variable in the experiment.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Music and Emotion from "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" by Oliver Sacks

Musciophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2007. The Chapter “The Case of Harry S.: Music and Emotion”

These short stories, the snapshots of Oliver Sacks’ work with patients who are neurologically damaged, interest and puzzle me all at the same time. There are so many opposites in these stories. They are sad yet hopeful, but mostly they remind me of how amazing and intricate, yet vulnerable and fragile our bodies and minds really are.

This particular chapter is about Harry S who was a young man who suffered an aneurysm while cycling. His frontal lobes were damaged as a result of extensive bleeding into them, and after he recovered from his coma, he lost the use of his legs and a large part of his “mind and personality.” Harry recovered some of his intellectual ability and would still read the magazine Scientific American (he was a mechanical engineer before his aneurysm). He could understand what he read but wasn’t excited by the articles or “wonder” about the ideas contained in them. He lost his emotion and was “inert, flat, and indifferent.” (Sacks, p. 334) But Harry loved Irish music and he had a good tenor voice. When he sang, he was no longer emotionless but instead he was transformed, full of emotion.

Sacks goes on to talk about a few of his other post-encephalitic patients. For example, Magda, wrote in her diary, “I ceased to have any moods. I ceased to care about anything. Nothing moved me- not even the death of my parents. I forgot what it felt like to be happy or unhappy. Was it good or bad? It was neither. It was nothing” (Sacks, p.335) Sacks doesn’t discuss here whether there was any musical therapy with Magda but later in this chapter, he talks about Stephen, an autistic savant who was so transformed by music, Sacks wrote the words, “autism disappears” in big capital letters in his notebook. When the music stopped, Stephen appeared autistic again. (Sacks, p. 338)

Is this transformation possible? How does this happen? How is music affecting the emotional areas of the brain? Is it only music that incites this transformation? Is there another explanation?

Well, there is some debate about frontal lobe diseases . It is possible that “such patients may involuntarily echo another’s gestures or actions or speech, and tend to a sort of involuntary simulation or mimicry.” (Sacks, p. 335) It is as if they are impersonating another being, but maybe they are impersonating another being, their former self, a self that was lost and in this moment is regained. The neuropsychologists/therapists/observers sometimes seem convinced that the musical emotion, the transformation is genuine. Can musical emotion be faked? As a musician, I would probably always want to believe in the transformational ability of music but how do I know.

But that’s the thing, we don’t know. We can study and speculate and hope but who is to know for sure. I keep thinking of Magda’s comment about not feeling happy or unhappy, feeling nothing – how is that possible not to have emotion. Think about all of your emotions - happiness, sadness, pleasure, pain, ecstasy, despair and the list goes on. They aren’t all great emotions and some of them can be very challenging to deal with but at least you have the brain ability to feel them – imagine not being able to.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Musical Memory

The web link above is a brief description of some studies carried out at Mc Gill University by Prof. Caroline Palmer. In connection to the chapter on performance from Jourdain’s book, it is clear that the brain works on different areas or aspects simultaneously when memorizing, or recalling music from memory; Palmer mentions that the motors skills take a significant part in the process of recalling music from memory, as well as, music that falls more naturally on the fingers, or that fingers have some familiarity with the nature of such music, is easier to memorize.
I have always had the worst musical memory and therefore have been interested in how this thing works. From what I read so far, I conclude that the development of musical memory is similar to the different learning styles that music education insists so much in the UK. As teachers we’ve been constantly advised to cater for the three learning styles, visual, aural and kinaesthetic. It seems that three styles are in operation in the process of memorization, with one of the three as a prominent skill that the learner falls back on.
In regards to music, given its aural nature, it gives the impression that we value the aural skill over the other two; at least, this is what I gather from Jourdain’s accounts on virtuosi. In my opinion, his accounst tent to be rather biases towards the traditional standards. As drummer Kenowwod Dennard from Berklee College of Music mentions, we need a new kind of virtuosity at this point in time; especially, when music education is trying to present itself as inclusive.

The Issue of Perfect Pitch

One of the topics that Jourdain’s book touches upon briefly is perfect pitch. From what he says, he seems to be of the idea that perfect pitch is developed at an early age and cannot be developed in the adult life. Perfect pitch and ear training altogether has been an area of constant interest to me; in regards to rhythm I have “perfect rhythm”, now, my natural ability for pitch is without a doubt below average for a musician, probably even below average non musician. Every bit of ability that i have gain has been the result of endless hours, even to this day of daily practise. Jourdain is rather dismissive of the exercises that some people like me, implement for the development of perfect pitch. I have been using Lucas’ Burge method for developing perfect pitch. The web link mentioned above, show various testimonials of people who benefited from the perfect pitch course. I have been working on it for 10 years now, and still don’t have it. What it is true, is that my awareness for perfect pitch has indeed improved; from the various testimonials, it is clear that perfect pitch is a skill, which can be learnt and as any other skill is not perfect. This means that there are various grades of ability. Let’s compare perfect pitch with perfect “scale playing”. How many pianists can play the scales at quarter note 200? Probably very few, but many other can still play the scales at a slower tempo and still make use and sense of them. It gives me the impression that Jourdain is thinking along the line of “black and white” in regards to the matter of perfect pitch. I cannot say for myself if the ability can be fully learnt, but it is apparent that the brain has the ability to develop towards it. I wonder if any of you, colleagues, has had any experience in regards to this most obscure issues of Perfect Pitch...