ICMPC / ESCOM at Thessaloniki

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So here we are! The first full day of the conference is now behind us, and the first thing to come to mind is that it is very hot in Greece! Luckily the conference venue is nicely air conditioned, and after a few days here the heat is a bit easier to take.

Scientifically the conference has had a great start, we had keynote presentations by Irène Deliège and John Rink already on Monday evening, and today a full day of presentations and posters.

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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better because it has been filtered through one night of sleep, but it could of course only mean that these are already out-of-date.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. 🙂

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)

ESCOM 2009 – day 1

The conference started! The 300+ participants from 35 countries have arrived, the keynotes, spoken papers and poster sessions are now on the way.

The first keynote was given by professor David Huron. He talked about how important it would be for the cognitive scientists and ethnomusicologists to work together. There are many reasons why these two groups of researchers are often each others’ harshest critics, the main one being the difference in points of view: cognitive scientists are in search for universals, while many ethnomusicologists work within the postmodern “paradigm”  with an emphasis on the uniqueness of each musical culture. And while ethnomusicologists might exaggerate the differences, they have strong and often justified scepticism towards cognitive musicologists’ claims that their findings, obtained by testing small groups of Western undergraduates, are universally true.

I tweeted Huron’s suggestions yesterday. Here’s a quick recap (the headings are Huron’s, the formulation of the explanations are mine, as I try to remember what prof Huron said…)

1) Don’t claim the truth
– there might not be one, and your’s is not the only one (we don’t do physics, and even their truths change)

2) Broaden your audience
– try to talk to those who disagree

3) Narrow your claims
– every sample is a convenience sample, and as cultures differ, claims of universality are very dangerous.

4) Don’t confuse universal with innate
– behaviours are complex interactions between individuals and environment. Nature via nurture, as Matt Ridley would put it.

5) Seek both difference and similarity.
– as Huron pointed out, “it’s not research if you don’t invite failure”. This is the key point in Popper’s idea of falsificationism as a scientific philosophy.

6) Acknowledge the limitations of cross-cultural comparisons.
– we do most of our cognitive work within the so-called Western cultures. Occasionally, when cross-cultural research is done, one or two other cultures are involved. Finding similarities in such a study does not, however, constitute compelling evidence for universality. There are more than 4 cultures out there.

7) Aim to collaborate (even if you can’t find a collaborator)
– this of course requires that we all talk with each other more, across disciplines, and accept that there is more than one way to do good research.

8 ) Travel broadens the mind
– a good inoculation against thinking everyone’s like me is to go to places to see they aren’t.

I’ll try to post daily, every evening, but as yesterday evening I had the pleasure to host my old colleagues from Cambridge, this post was delayed till next morning. I’m currently contemplating Aniruddh Patel’s keynote on music and evolution, and will post my thoughts later. This was a true conversation starter as a presentation, and I hope there will be some here in this blog, as well.

ESCOM 2009

The seventh triennial conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music, or ESCOM2009 started today in Jyväskylä. We’ve got approximately 300 international guests, and 5 days of talks and networking ahead of us.

The conference delegates are now gathered at the Martti Ahtisaari -hall of the University of Jyväskylä. The first keynote of the conference is on the way, by professor David Huron of Ohio State University.

I’ll be tweeting from the conference using the hash tag #ESCOM, so tune in, and chime in, if you are around/interested. The proceedings can be found online here. The conference website has a lot of information, including the conference program.