Anyone who’s ever watched a horror film will know that the sound of two clashing notes evokes a visceral response in most people. Among Western listeners there’s a strong preference for consonance, which exists even from infancy; consonance is the pleasing mixture of two tones, while dissonance is their clashing. (For a good example of both, see this video.) It’s controversial whether the same preferences exist in other cultures, but new research indicates the preferences might be wired in our brains.
The prevailing theory of music in the brain is that dissonant combinations share frequencies that are a bit too close. When these frequencies are perceived by the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that translates sounds to nerve impulses, they can’t be well distinguished. Because similar frequencies are processed next to one another on the cochlea, their nerve signals can interfere with one another. The perception is a grating effect, called “beating.” Read More
If you want to know what the cool kids will be listening to next month, here are two hints: 1) Head to Atlanta. 2) It’s probably hip hop. That’s according to a recently posted arXiv paper mapping the geographic flow of music on the social-networking music site Last.fm.
Last.fm users sync their iTunes listening histories to the site, recording some 11 billion tracks played in 2011. The site has been a gold mine for data viz lovers like LastGraph, and social-network researchers are getting in on the action, too. In this study, they looked for trendsetting cities that started (and stopped—those snobs) listening to new artists before everyone else. Among American Last.fm users, Atlanta is the trendsetting city.
But when they sorted by music genre, the researchers found subtler patterns. Atlanta dominates the overall music flow mostly because it’s a hip hop center, and hip hop has been ubiquitous to American ears. When it comes to other genres such as indie music, the trendsetting city of North America is further north—much further north—in Montreal.
As computer hardware and software becomes ever more powerful, they find ways to match and then exceed many human abilities. One point of superiority that humans have stubbornly refused to yield is tuning musical instruments. Pythagoras identified the precise, mathematical relationships between musical tones over 2,000 years ago, and modern machines can beat out any human when it comes to precise math. So why aren’t computers better than people? The professional tuner does have one incontrovertible advantage: a trained human ear.
Imprecision, it turns out, is embedded in our scales, instruments, and tuning system, so pros have to adjust each instrument by ear to make it sound its best. Electronic tuners can’t do this well because there has been no known way to calculate it. Basically, it’s an art, not a science. But now, a new algorithm published in arXiv claims to be just as good as a professional tuner. To understand how this new algorithm works, it’s worth understanding how today’s electronic tuners don’t work.
A 68-year-old concert cellist suffering from severe amnesia can still learn new music, researchers reported [pdf] at the Society for Neuroscience conference this weekend. In 2005, the cellist suffered a bout of herpes encephalitis, a dangerous infection that causes inflammation in the brain. His medial temporal lobes, brain structures important in remembering facts and events—what scientists call explicit memory—were destroyed. As a result, the cellist, referred to by the initials PM, was left with both retrograde amnesia (meaning he couldn’t remember events from his past) and anterograde amnesia (meaning he couldn’t form new memories).
Saint Mark’s basilica was where many Venetian polyphonic works had their debut performances, but the reverb presented a puzzle for historians.
Ah, the Renaissance—lots of deep thinkers, gorgeous art, busty maidens, fried dough on a stick (if Ren faires are to be believed), and the liveliest music this side of the Middle Ages. But when you compare the elaborate, up-tempo harmonies of late Renaissance polyphony to the churches where they would have been performed, a serious discrepancy pops up. Giant Renaissance churches like Saint Mark’s basilica and the Redentore, both in Venice, have way too long of a reverberation time for those tunes to sound good. It takes a full 7 seconds for a note to fade after it’s played or sung, and that means that songs, especially fast ones, blend into a giant muddy mess.
A physicist and a music technologist, who presented their work at the American Acoustical Society on Monday, wondered if the churches, when packed full of people and hung with heavy draperies during holy festivals, might have sounded much better than they do today. Working with architectural historians, they calculated the chairs, drapery, and audience members’ ability to absorb sound. With a computer model of the churches, they were able to show that with full-on holy regalia and a crowded audience, the reverberation time was cut in half. They took their analysis even further to see if the small pergoli, or balconies, installed by an architect in Saint Mark’s would have enhanced the experience of a person sitting in the Doge’s throne when a choir was split between them (all the rage in Renaissance Venice). Indeed, they found that with a split choir in a fully decorated church, the reverberation time at the Doge’s throne was reduced to a mere 1.5 or 2 seconds, which is the gold standard for modern concert halls.
To hear the Doge’s stereo system for yourself, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.
Image courtesy of Andreas Tille / Wikimedia Commons
What’s the News: It’s always a gamble when a record company decides to sign a new band, as they can never truly predict which artists will be successful. Sometimes marketing firms will use focus groups to guess at future musical gold mines, but conflicting motivations, among other things, can hamper results. Now, researchers have found that while you may not be able to consciously pinpoint which songs will be hits, your brain just might.
It’s tough enough to play Dr. House with a living, breathing patient who’s right there in the room. It’s quite another thing to diagnose across distance and time. Yet some scientists find it irresistible to peek into the history books with the benefit of modern medical knowledge and try to crack the cases of historical figures who died too young. Was metal-nosed astronomer Tycho Brahe poisoned, for instance? And what caused Mozart’s demise? (It wasn’t Salieri.)
This week, researchers turn their detective eyes to the famed romantic composer Frederic Chopin, who left behind a wealth of lovely piano compositions when he died at 39 in 1849. Writing in Medical Humanities, a specialized edition of the British Medical Journal, Spanish scientists led by Manuel Varquez Caruncho argue that there’s an explanation for Chopin’s health woes and momentary hallucinations that his 19th century doctors and subsequent investigations overlooked: The composer had a particular type of epilepsy.
Chopin’s tendency to lapse out of consciousness was interpreted by his partner George Sand, pseudonym of the French novelist Aurore Dudevant, as “the manifestation of a genius full of sentiment and expression.” But in the analysis published this week, Spanish doctors say Chopin’s hallucinations may have been due to a temporal lobe epilepsy rather than the result of any sweeping artistic tendencies. [AP]
Those delicious chills you get as your favorite piece of music reaches its climax? They’re the result of a glorious spike of dopamine in your brain–that’s the same neurotransmitter that’s involved in reward, motivation, and addiction.
In a nifty series of experiments published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers determined that music provokes floods of dopamine in music lovers. Study coauthor Valorie Salimpoor notes that dopamine has long been known to play a role in more physical activities like taking drugs and having sex, but this research highlights its role in other aspects of our lives.
“It is amazing that we can release dopamine in anticipation of something abstract, complex and not concrete,” Salimpoor said. “This is the first study to show that dopamine can be released in response to an aesthetic stimulus.” [Discovery News]
This Wednesday, the United States District Court in Manhattan came down in favor of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in its case against the file-sharing service LimeWire, and founder Mark Gorton, over copyright infringement.
In a fairly unusual move, Judge Wood held Gorton personally liable. “The evidence establishes that Gorton directed and benefited from many of the activities that gave rise to LW’s liability,” she wrote [Wall Street Journal].
The decision was a long time in coming. Nine years have passed (seriously, nine years) since the federal ruling against Napster back in 2001. Most file-sharing services gave up after the 2005 decision against Grokster, the Journal says, but LimeWire held out. So the record companies sued in 2006, and finally won.
This looks like the end for LimeWire.
“It is obviously a fairly fatal decision for them,” said Michael Page, the San Francisco lawyer who represented file sharing service Grokster in the landmark case, MGM Studios vs. Grokster, and also represented LimeWire’s former CTO in the company’s most recent copyright case. “If they don’t shut down, the other side will likely make a request for an injunction and there’s nothing left but to go on to calculating damages” [CNET].
If you can’t say it, then sing it! Experts researching patients who have lost their ability to speak after a stroke are now suggesting that they could be able to communicate with music using Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT). Using MIT, the scientists showed that patients who were earlier communicating only in mumbles and grunts could now learn to sing out basic phrases like “I am thirsty.”
The study was conducted by Harvard Medical School neurologist Gottfried Schlaug on 12 patients whose speech was impaired by strokes, and showed that patients who were taught to essentially sing their words improved their verbal abilities and maintained the improvement for up to a month after the end of the therapy [Wall Street Journal]. Schlaug presented these findings at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego.