As the oboe’s ‘tuning A’ fades, the lights go down, a hush spreads across the audience, the conductor raises his baton, bringing it down with a flourish. So the orchestra starts, you settle back in your seat to listen, letting your mind drift away with the music.
Casting your eye across the faces of the musicians you begin to wonder if this is just another performance for them, just one more run-through of a well-rehearsed piece. Or is tonight special? Are they ready to invest the performance with something new, something magical that will send shivers down your spine?
Once past saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ to someone you’ve just met, what is next?
[Photo by Ariz]
Once past saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ to someone you’ve just met, what is next? How do we make friends and get to know other people? Psychologists have talked about the importance of body language, physical appearance and clothing but they’ve not been so keen on what we actually talk about. A recent study put participants in same-sex and opposite-sex pairings and told them to get to know each other over 6 weeks (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). Analysing the results, they found the most popular topic of conversation was music. What is it about music that’s so useful when we first meet someone and what kind of information can we extract from the music another person likes?
Last night at the Barbican I was privileged to hear the world premiere of a new piece by Jonathan Dove called Hojoki. The work is based on an autobiographical story by Kamo no Chomei, a Buddhist monk who lived in the 13th century. Written in 1212, Hojoki tells of his move from Kyoto to escape the constant threat of natural and man-made disasters in the city. In this composition, the story was narrated by a countertenor soloist with the orchestra providing dramatic colour. For me it was extremely moving and the rest of audience seemed to think so as well. But, why does music have the power to access deeper parts of ourselves, to strike at the heart of what it means to be human?
Many people claim to be tone-deaf (technically called amusia) although it has been estimated that only about 4% of the population actually have the condition. This disparity between actual and claimed amusia is probably because it’s an excellent way of avoiding singing in public – I’ve used it on many occasions. However, researchers have found the condition to be incredibly specific.
Imagine you had a cross-wiring in your brain that caused information to leak from your sense of sounds into your sense of taste. This could mean that each time you hear C sharp you taste a sprout. A similar effect might happen across other senses. Words or numbers could have colours, shapes might have tastes or sounds might have associated smells.
There is a small chance you do not have to imagine this strange experience as synaesthetes number one in 2,000 people, with women outnumbering men six to one. On a psychology course when this phenomenon is described, it is often a revelatory experience for one or two people. Suddenly a person discovers they are not alone in their unusual experience of the world.
Synaesthetes are usually normal in every way and in fact their unusual brain wiring can have some added benefits. Some find that their mathematical or musical abilities are enhanced – check out this story from Wired.
→ From Wired
If you are one of those people who believes that you are tone deaf then perhaps it is time to change your beliefs. New research into musically ‘talented’ people claims that their talents are a result of practice. So far, so dull.
What Oliver James doesn’t address in his article is the most important question which many psychologists are asking now: how much is practice and how much is talent? Now there’s a question that’s worth answering.
Here is a longer post than normal which highlights the importance of reading the actual study rather than just the news report.
First a quote from the report: “The idea that studying music improves the intellect is not a new one, but at last there is incontrovertible evidence from a study conducted out of the University of Toronto.”
And here is what the study says in it’s conclusion: “The findings indicate that music lessons cause small increases in IQ, but comparable nonmusical activities do not have similar consequences.” and continues: “It is well established that simple attendance at school raises IQ (Ceci & Williams, 1997), and that school instruction is particularly effective when classes are small (Ehrenberg, Brewer, Gamoran, & Wilms, 2001). Music lessons, taught individually or in small groups, may provide additional boosts in IQ because they are like school but still enjoyable. Moreover, music lessons involve a multiplicity of experiences that could generate improvement in a wide range of abilities. From this perspective, extracurricular activities (other than drama lessons) with similar properties (e.g., chess lessons, programs in science or reading) may confer similar benefits.”