Wasn’t social media supposed to be social?

Last weekend a citizens’ web activist Ray Beckerman wrote about the recent changes Twitter made on their main website, reflecting the strategies they have adopted for future development of the micro-blogging platform. According to him, these changes mean that Twitter is turning its back on facilitating social interaction and is trying to become a hub for news, entertainment etc., in other words, a place where people passively consume information.

Earlier, in August, another well-known web persona Leo LaPorte shared his moment of reckoning, after being cut off from Google Buzz for almost a month and not noticing it. Neither did any of his 17 000+ followers notice. From his eye-opening story a question arises: would he have noticed that the communication channel was broken, if he had actually used it for communication rather than broadcasting?

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Return of the Mozart Effect

In the early 90’s, American researchers caused a stir when they reported a study where they’d showed that listening to Mozart boosts your performance in a subsequent IQ test (eg. Rauscher, Shaw & Ky 1995). The term “Mozart effect” was coined, then trademarked and rapidly monetised by a musician called Dan Campbell, and peddling “brain cd’s” for students, children and even preborn babies has been a growth industry ever since. Clearly this study ticked all the boxes: intelligence, music by a mystery genious, providing an easy fix and a shortcut for a competitive edge for your children. Too bad the study also ticked many of the boxes of inadequate experimental study, including small N, badly chosen controls and some very liberal interpretation of the results (although the authors themselves didn’t claim that Mozart increased intelligence, they only went so far as to say it improved performance in a spatio-temporal task).

Follow-up studies that were done by people with better knowledge of how music works (a number of studies by Glenn Schellenberg, for example) first of all pointed out that comparing music with silence (the control group in the original study spent an equivalent time sitting in silence, when the experimental group listened to music by Mozart) isn’t actually fair. Also, the proposed explanation of the mechanism behind this effect is somewhat dubious. Many of the replications of this study have also failed to reproduce the finding.

There is an effect, however, but it is much less mysterious. According to the explanation that makes most sense (as the mechanism is well-known, robust and well-documented) listening to music adjusts your state of arousal, and valence. In other words, music can affect your feelings and mood. The piano sonata K448 by Mozart (the one used in the original study) is a happy, uptempo piece that is likely to set you up for an IQ test better than sitting in dull silence. Later, this effect has been produced with user-selected music, and dubbed humorously as “Blur Effect”. There is a bit more to it than that, as the performance increase was specific to the spatio-temporal tasks, but given that music unfolds temporally and that melodies and rhythms are often described as having spatial characteristics (starting from “low” and “high” notes”, melodies being described as (virtual) movement, rhythmic patterns being similar than sounds of locomotion etc.) it is possible that music primes the participant (probably activating the relevant parts of brain) for those kinds of tasks. However, these effects are general for music, not something that would be specifically encoded in the music by Mozart the Mystery Man.

Now that the scientific community has dealt with this sensational study (and of course learned a lot in the process, received attention, funding and general interest that it wouldn’t have if Rauscher and others had been less eager to promote their findings), the second wave of Mozart Effect is on our doorstep. An Israeli study claims that Mozart helps babies to gain weight.

The researchers are specialists of pediatrics, but clearly not of music. They found that 30 minutes of Mozart makes the babies expend less energy afterwards and this helps them gain weight – an important thing especially for prematurely born babies. While being experts on fat content of mothers’ milk, they admit not knowing anything on music cognition, as they say that the mechanism of the music’s effect is unknown. I don’t understand why they didn’t ask someone who knows anything about how music affects the body – any music therapist or music psychologist would have been able to tell them about this. It’s not a mystery, a world beyond our reach, or a treacherous, uncharted sea where be dragons. Google Scholar search for keywords “music” and “physiology” gives 64 000 hits. Reading any of those links would have helped. Would it be possible that music calms the babies down? We all know music has this effect, this is why lullabies are used in all cultures.

The most shocking point of that press release (I’m taking this with a pinch of salt as it is a document written by a press office, not the original paper, which I haven’t found yet) is that while the study only compared Mozart with silence, the authors still speculate on why Mozart is special, and how for example Beethoven wouldn’t work. How do they know without even testing it?

They guess it is the repetitiveness, and someone has therefore ventured a guess that hip hop would work well, too. All I’m hoping is that they’d contact a music researcher (they’d find some in their own university, even someone specialised in music cognition) to give them a hand in really figuring out what this effect is about, before we find another wave of Mozart CD salesmen on our doorsteps.

(I edited this post somewhat to correct the error that Mozart Effect was trademarked by the authors of the original study – it was done by Dan Campbell who has no connection to the authors. Also, the original paper says nothing about increased intelligence, that was a shortcut taken by the press (and people like Campbell), as “improving performance in a spatio-temporal task” was too complicated a term. TH 11.1.2010)

ESCOM – day 2 | Music and evolution

It seems that as the evenings are about socialising, the time for these daily posts is morning. This  hopefully means that what I write is better because it has been filtered through one night of sleep, but it could of course only mean that these are already out-of-date.

The second day started with two keynote addresses. The first was a shared presentation by Lars Ole Bonde and Tony Wigram, two music therapists who have been central in establishing music therapy as an evidence-based discipline. They have been involved in a number of studies that adhere to the strict standards of medical research and review. Their talk was on Music Dynamics and Emotion in Therapy: Theory and Applied Research.

For a morning session starting at 8.30, their topic was a dangerous one. They played a lot of examples of relaxing music and even asked people to close their eyes and sit back while listening to it… I didn’t dare, because I think I would have fallen asleep, due to not sleeping so much during the night. ūüôā

The second keynote was by Dr. Aniruddh Patel and his topic was Music, Neuroscience and Evolution. There’s a lot of debate on the evolutionary origins of music, mainly on whether music is an evolutionary adaptation or not. Like all debates, this has been polarised to two opposing views. According to one, music is biologically important, it is selected for in evolution. The other, perhaps epitomized in Steven Pinker’s formulation of it being auditory cheesecake, it is biologically unimportant, and just something we do, purely for pleasure.

Ani’s approach was to step back and look at this debate and this phenomenon from a neural (and perhaps neutral) point of view. I liked his approach, that we should start with the null hypothesis that music is NOT an evolutionary adaptation. He says that for language we can reject such a hypothesis, but that he is not prepared to do so with music.

As evidence, he offered findings from neuroscience that seemed to suggest that while there are also indications that music and language, for instance, are in some ways independent in the brains (there are stroke victims, for instance, that have lost one ability while preserving the other), he argued that the core functions, such as syntax processing in both music and language are shared.

He discussed tonality and entrainment as examples of processes that underlie music. As I said in the tweets yesterday, I don’t quite agree with his reasoning. Or, I agree with the logic, but not the conclusions, and this is because I have a somewhat different interpretation of the results of the research that he presented. There are a number of problems, but mainly I think that for these neuroscientific studies, massively complex phenomena, like “music”, are reduced to impoverished, one-dimensional, artificial projections, in order to be able to conduct research within the tight constraints of neuroimaging, for instance.

So, the evidence applies to certain aspects of musical abilities, but while looking at these parts, I think he was missing the whole.

Also, what I missed in the talk was a more profound analysis of what music is for, what are its functions. This is of course a key issue when discussing whether music has a biological purpose. Currently, there is a gap between what music does in the world, and what it is studied as in the laboratories. Music is a social activity, a means of communication, a vehicle for emotions, and playground, source of solace and an art form, pleasure technology and a number of other things. I agree that in order to study it, we need to break it into parts, we need to look for brain correlates of those parts and do reductions and projections in order to make sense of the complex phenomenon. I identify myself as a scientist, and am willing to contort music to fit my experimental designs. However, one has to be careful when drawing conclusions about things such as universality (see David Huron’s talk yesterday) and especially when all the evidence comes from within one musical culture.

I did like the way in which he demolished the false dichotomy where cognitive faculties are either innate and biologically important or learned and biologically insignificant. He says that music is a transformational tool that is invented, learned, just like fire use, but as it shapes the brain, it is also biologically important, but only ontogenetically, not phylogenetically. While it is good to remember that the question of nature or nurture is not dichotomous, I’m not sure if what he says about transformational tools fits to music (or, of course depends how you define music). However, saying “music” is invented is in conflict with evidence from developmental studies and how first interaction between newborn babies and their caregivers is “musical” in nature, for example.

But, with all this criticism, I must say that Ani Patel has the talent for clear argumentation. He can explain things and bring clarity to issues that are otherwise murky and difficult to understand. The experiments themselves are of very high quality and I think Patel’s SSIRH-model has a lot of attractive qualities, and could well be that the syntax-engine in the brain is shared by language and music – the problem of course being, what syntax is. This is not as clear for music as it might be for language.

Patel’s keynote did the job of a keynote very well – it started a discussion and I’m sure his way of structuring the argumentation will be influential. I hope he continues to work with these questions.

(Pic: Conference venue Agora, © University of Jyväskylä)

Extending copyright of recorded music

Broken record

The European Parliament is currently preparing their response to the Commission proposal to extend the copyright of sound recordings from the current 50 year period to 95 years. This proposal has been put together at the request of big record labels and follows a similar extension in the US.

This proposal is problematic to say the least. From research point of view, and based on the US experience, the main result will be a serious limitation of availability of recorded music – musicians would not benefit from this. Continue reading