Are musicians better at identifying emotional cues in others?

Why study music: part IVa

About ten years ago, I was startled by a headline that, in essence, said if you wanted a spouse or friend who picked up your most subtle emotional cues, find a musician.  Intrigued, I tracked down the research behind the article and discovered the work of Dr. Nina Kraus, Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University.

The Lab was already known at that time for its work on the neurobiology of music and speech perception (see previous post).  This particular study found that, not only were musicians better able to process the emotion in sound than non-musicians, but the ability was directly related to the number of years of experience of the musician and the age at which he/she began to study. Continue reading

Music and speech: Why study music, part IV

Our lives in sound

Our lives are filled with sound.  On average, Americans listen to music for more than 32 hours a week (Nielsen 2017 study).  We spend hours in conversation with co-workers, friends and families.  We hear the everyday sounds of traffic, appliances in our homes, television, athletic events, pets, and a great deal more.  We never think about what our brains do with all of that – sometimes competing – auditory information. 

But according to Dr. Nina Kraus,  Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab (Brainvolts) at Northwestern University, making sense of sound is one of the most computationally complex tasks we ask our brains to do.  Not only is there a staggering amount of information to process (something on the order of  9 million bits of data per second1), we have to process information in microseconds in order to respond if necessary.  Continue reading

Music and prehistoric cave art

Lascaux Cave

A few weeks ago, my husband and I visited Lascaux Cave, a well-known Paleolithic cave in southwestern France.  Many of you have seen illustrations like the one below –  one of about 600 cave paintings at Lascaux with another 1400 or so engravings dating to somewhere between 17,000 and 15,000 BCE.

Lascaux Cave painting, France

Actually one cannot enter the real Lascaux Cave, which was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.  Discovered in 1940, it was opened to the public in 1948, but the 1200 visitors/day produced carbon dioxide, heat, humidity and contaminants that began to visibly damage the paintings.  So it was closed to the public in 1963.  The only people now allowed in the original cave are technicians/scientists who monitor the preservation of the site.

One can visit Lascaux II, opened in 1983, an exact replica of three of the halls of the cave.  Or you can choose Lascaux IV, a high-tech digital, multimedia site that opened in 2016.  We chose Lascaux II – wanting a more “authentic” experience. Continue reading

How old is music?

Early Music

When musicians or music lovers talk about early music, we’re usually talking about Renaissance music, so roughly between 1400 – 1650, if you extend into the early Baroque.  So for us, early music goes back a few hundred years.  If you speak to an archaeologist, however, early music takes on a totally different meaning, extending back tens of thousands of years.

Bone flute from Hohle Fels archaeological site
Conard, et al. Nature (2009), doi:10.1038/nature08169

Archaeologists have found evidence of cultural and artistic innovations including cave paintings, small human and animal figures, and bone and ivory flutes dating to about 40,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic era, about the time that early humans first arrived in Europe.

As difficult as it may be to imagine, stone age humans were playing the flute!

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Music in a frame

On a cold Friday morning in January 2007, a young man in jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap entered the Washington Metro at the L-Enfant Plaza station during the middle of rush hour, opened a violin case, took out his violin, and began to play – nothing unusual about that scenario since musicians frequent Metro stops on many mornings.  For the next 43 minutes, this violinist played 6 pieces, including works by Bach, Schubert, and Massenet.

Of the 1097 people who passed by during that 43 minutes, only a handful stopped even briefly to listen or to throw some money into the open case at the musician’s feet.  Everyone was in a hurry to get to work and couldn’t be bothered to stop.   By now, most of you may know the story I’m referring to, but in case you don’t, or want to see where this post is going, . . .   Continue reading

Musicians and hearing loss

No doubt you have, on occasion, noticed teenagers congregating (some would say loitering) in shopping malls, outside of movie theaters or convenience stores, or in parking lots.  In 2005,  after his 17-yr old daughter was bullied and harassed by a gang of teens outside a local convenience store, a man in Wales named Howard Stapleton came up with an idea to solve the problem.  He invented a device emitting a high frequency that could be mounted outside the shop.   The sound would be so annoying to teenagers that they would leave rather than congregate outside. 

The sound was at a frequency of 17 kHz, which teens could hear,  but adults could not because most people lose the ability to hear higher frequencies after their early 20s.  So because adults could not hear the sound, they would do their shopping in peace.  Teenagers who came to buy something would shop and leave, rather than submit themselves to the obnoxious sound by congregating outside.    Nicknamed the Mosquito, the device has been sold throughout Europe and in the US, has been praised and promoted by many police departments, but is also in the crosshairs of several civil rights organizations.*
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