Music Psychology with Dr Victoria Williamson Wed, 26 Apr 2017 06:47:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How can we capture earworms? Thu, 20 Apr 2017 08:26:05 +0000 Hello Dear Reader,

I am currently on maternity leave, awaiting the arrival of my first baby, my daughter. It has been a busy last few weeks at work as I did my best to complete as many of my work projects as possible and ensure that everyone I would be leaving behind at Sheffield for a while would be okay. In particular I found it hard to face the idea of leaving my Music & Wellbeing team for this period of time. However, they are all doing really well on their individual projects and I know they have good support and great strengths going forwards. They have all been incredibly supportive of me during my pregnancy and above everything else I am grateful for their understanding and kindnesses. I am lucky to work with such lovely people.

I have been lucky with my pregnancy when I look back. Yes, I was tired a great deal of the time, but for the most part I was blessed with only mild symptoms for the best part of 8 months. That has not been the case for the past few weeks – I have been more sick, exhausted and uncomfortable than ever before in my life. My consolation is that my baby girl is strong and doing well. In fact, she is kicking me as I type! If all goes well her Papi and I will get to hold her very soon for the first time – we can’t wait.

Today’s blog is dedicated to a project that has taken a few years to come to the light. Back in 2010-2011 I began working on the earworm project, a collaborative series of studies that had been devised between myself and my senior colleagues at Goldsmiths, University of London.

We wanted to understand why music gets stuck in our minds – the secrets behind the pervasive and everyday mental experience of an earworm.

During my time at Goldsmiths we carried out several studies where we investigated:

1  – How do earworms start?

2 – What gets rid of unwanted earworms?

3 – What are earworms like for other people?

One of my final big questions of the project emerged from a growing concern we had with studies that focused on earworm induction. These studies attempt to trigger a realistic earworm experience in the lab so that experimenters can then carry out tests on various aspects of the earworms, such as how long they last or who gets them more frequently. Another aim of induction studies is to determine where earworms may originate in the brain.

The problem with many of these earworm induction studies is a basic weakness in their method – they risk biased responses by the use of leading questions. For example, you might be invited into the lab and asked to listen to some music. Then after a period of time, perhaps engaged in another activity, you are asked the question; ‘Have you had that music we played you stuck in your head?’

This question betrays the nature of the earworm induction and leads the participant to a certain response. Of course, most if not all people will tell the truth, but you can’t be sure if they would really have really responded in this way if you had not prompted them. The same logic applies to leading questions in eyewitness testimony. 

Hence, we decided to try to develop a new method to induce earworms with one main goal – participants must not know that earworms are the aim of our experiment. They must be unaware that we are inducing earworms and unaware that they are reporting on earworm experiences.

As you might imagine, this was a hard puzzle to crack! And it took time…

To begin with I spent many hours hunched over my desk, pouring over eyewitness testimony research and memory literature to find inspiration for the new paradigm. I also wanted the new earworm induction method to bear some relationship to how earworms happen in everyday life. So I also went back to our previous surveys and read the thousands of stories we had received describing the circumstances of earworm onset.

Eventually, after quite a few false starts (many pilot experiments ended up in the bin…) I had an idea. Many people get earworms after watching films, adverts and television so it would meet our criterion to reflect real life experiences if we used these kind of media for our trigger.

However, there was a problem. Basic TV scenes and TV/ radio adverts didn’t seem to work very well, nowhere near as well as I had expected. I carried out one pilot using radio jingles and I could not believe how few really stuck in people’s minds.

I decided on a new tactic. I wanted to try to find adverts or film clips that were mostly music as I had a suspicion that the problem of low induction in my pilot studies was related to the amount of new information carried in the verbal messages of the adverts. People may have been too distracted by the complex nature of the new stimuli, meaning the ‘earworm potential’ was weakened. I wanted to find short visual clips that featured only music, preferably music that would be familiar to most people as this tends to maximise the chances of successful earworm induction as compared to novel music.

After a few hours of searching YouTube I finally came upon the visual clip that broke the puzzle – one of the original film trailers for the 1990 film ‘Pretty Woman’. This film trailer, which was really released in cinemas, featured only visual clips of the film to the soundtrack of Roy Orbison singing the title track ‘Pretty Woman’. No spoken words. Perfect.

Once I knew what to search for the other examples of film clips for the new paradigm came pretty quickly. James Bond was an obvious choice of a well known musical theme where I was pretty sure I could find a trailer that only used the famous leitmotif to visual images of Bond doing his thing. And I found one, a trailer Daniel Craig’s version of ‘Casino Royale’.

Musical films were another productive avenue. I found a very nice trailer of the 2012 film ‘Les Miserable’ that featured only visual clips of the film set to the haunting rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’.

In the end we decided on a paradigm that featured two suitable music-only film trailers, as we wanted an induction that was not too long, which could be done in a classroom or citizen science project setting in 10-15 minutes. We went for the ones that worked best – Pretty Woman and James Bond.

Around the lab the new paradigm became known by the name of its original inspiration. It was, and still is for me, ‘The Pretty Woman Paradigm’

The other key invention in the paradigm is the way that we sampled the experiences people have after they have seen the induction film trailer stimuli. We don’t ask the direct leading question that is so troublesome in other studies. Instead we created our ‘Mind Activity Questionnaire’. Inspired by eyewitness testimony research, the idea is that the questions we ask are wide and varied, they don’t focus on music but on all mental experiences that people have during the intervening period between induction and final reporting. Also, we get people to rate their level of perceived mental control over their experiences and the amount of repetition in their thoughts. Using these criteria, experimenters can distinguish the mental experience of earworms (involuntary and repetitive) from other mental imagery of music, which may well be entirely voluntary and therefore not, by definition, an earworm.

Using ‘The Pretty Woman Paradigm’, my coauthors and I have just produced a new paper showing the influence of cognitive load on earworm induction. We found that it actually takes surprisingly little distraction to get in the way of an earworm setting up in our minds (link to paper below).

This new evidence supports the idea that one important factor that predicts an earworm experience that originates from music exposure is the existence of a wandering mind state in the period of time shortly after the music is heard. It appears that a diffuse state of mental attention at this point in time provides fertile mental soil in which an earworm can embed itself within our conscious focus.

More recently, my close colleague on this paper and in life, Dr. Floridou (the lovely Georgina), and I have been working on a new project at Sheffield with Dr Lisa-Marie Emerson, using ‘The Pretty Woman Paradigm’. We have been testing the differences between earworms and other forms of intrusive mental experiences.

That research project has gone really well and is in the final process of being written up for publication; stay tuned! Hopefully later this year we can bring you lots of new and fascinating insights into the hidden world of our sometimes seemingly random subconscious thought processes.

That’s it for now, Dear Reader. I must turn my attention away from work for a while and towards my family and my new life as a mum. I intend to devote my energy over the next few days/ weeks into preparing to bring my daughter safely into the world. A whole new world awaits me and my loved ones. Please wish us luck 🙂


Here is a link to our new earworm paper, featuring ‘The Pretty Woman Paradigm’, which was published by The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. It is called ‘A novel indirect method for capturing involuntary musical imagery under varying cognitive load’

Do you listen to classical music? Tue, 17 Jan 2017 13:05:01 +0000 Hello Dear Reader,



Today the temperature has really begun to drop and for the first time I am working in front of a roaring fire in the middle of the day. Winter is surely creeping up on Yorkshire finally.

My heightened awareness of this change may have something to do with the fact that I spent Sunday filing away my 2016 photos and reflecting in particular on my week in Lanzarote, a location my dear Spanish husband picked as it is, on average, the warmest place in Europe in winter. And it was when we visited in November. A very pleasant 25 degrees most days.

Lanzarote has an absolutely stunning volcanic landscape, great fun to explore. The fire mountains were a highlight, well worth a visit if you ever find yourself on the island.

However, Dear Reader, thoughts of holidays must be put away for now so I can focus on the next 10 weeks of work before I go on maternity leave; luckily I have my fire and my beloved blog to cheer me through the transition to UK winter and the large pile of 2017 jobs awaiting my attention.

elenaAs part of my work this week I get some carved out time to focus on one of my favourite research projects, that which I share for at least the next 2 years (thanks to generous funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation) with my collaborators from The Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, in particular my wonderful research ‘partner in crime’ Dr Elena Alessandri.

It is all thanks to Elena that I was introduced to the fascinating world of analysing music critique, in particular written reviews of recorded music performances.

From Elena’s research we know a great deal now about the rich history of such music review in relation to classical piano repertoire. She was the first to take an in depth look at what critics actually write about and what they want from a great recorded piano performance.

Building on this work, Elena and I are working on a new challenge, the first study to look at how music review is received by classical music listeners from around the world. We have questions like these in our minds:

What kind of reviews do people read/ listen to? What is the place of professional written review amongst the multiple opinions offered across music platforms and social media? And ultimately, what do people think makes for a convincing argument when pondering “to listen or not to listen?'”

We would love to hear your views! If you have listened to any recording of classical music in the past few weeks then please follow the links below to our survey.

We have created an English and a German version of our survey to reflect our joint institutions.

The survey takes approximately 25 minutes and we offer a generous prize draw! Up for grabs are five Amazon vouchers of £45 and three of £20 (or the closest fully upward rounded denomination in the chosen Amazon currency).

English version –

German version –

The survey is hosted in Qualtrics, which is an internationally renowned secure data service used by many top companies and universities so you can be assured of data confidentiality and anonymity.

This is the first ever study to explore musical opinion in this way and your feedback will help us generate positive impacts on training and music education, as well as enhance our wider understanding of music aesthetics and expression.

Please pass on the links and this blog to anyone and everyone who you think might be interested. The more data we gather the more we can get a true picture of the fascinating questions surrounding the role of music critique to help both musicians and writers.



New discoveries from 2016 Sun, 01 Jan 2017 13:10:22 +0000 Hello Dear Reader,

Happy 2017! I hope that you enjoyed the festive celebrations over the past few weeks with a view to a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. I was fortunate enough to celebrate both Christmas and New Year’s Eve with close family and on the latter occasion to enjoy the rare sight of my mother in law getting a little tipsy on red wine and throwing streamers around the room. It’s the little things that make for lasting precious memories!

My husband and I also enjoyed our much anticipated ‘big reveal’, finally telling the world (i.e. Facebook and Twitter after telling our close friends and families) that we are expecting a little girl in early May. In the UK your final scheduled scan during a normal pregnancy is at 20-21 weeks and we had ours just before Christmas. It was the best present ever. Thankfully all looks well so far.

I can feel my daughter kicking and growing stronger every day. I am full of excitement (a little fear, but mostly joy) for this new phase of our lives. Life may not always work out the way you plan – this has been said and felt by many people in 2016 – but despite the knocks and shocks we can guarantee two things; there will always be change and new discoveries along the way, and there will always be hope.

On the theme of ‘new discoveries’, I recently came across an absorbing article on the BBC news website that revealed 100 things we have learned in 2016.  These included facts like:

  • Fish can recognise human faces
  • Exercising four hours after learning can help you remember information
  • Only about half of perceived friendships are mutual
  • Mosquitoes carrying malaria are repelled by chickens
  • Three British and three Dutch World War Two ships have vanished from the bottom of the Java Sea
  • Rainbows can also occur at night

And finally one for my dear husband who delights at the madness of the UK train ticket pricing system….

  • There are at least 42 different fares for rail travel between London Euston and Birmingham, ranging from £6 to £119

This article got me thinking. What have we discovered in the world of music psychology in 2016?

A review is always an enjoyable and rewarding experience so I decided to look back over my email alerts for new papers and to pull out some new findings for you. If you would like to receive these emails (1-2 per month) then all you have to do is register on the Mariani Foundation website.

Please note that I have not spent hours agonizing over papers to select and there are no biases involved or implied in this summary, except I have not listed my own papers on principle. If you would like to see what I have been up to this year then you can visit my Media or Publications pages.

Like the BBC article this blog is not meant to provide a ‘top findings’ list, but rather a broad coverage of the kind of great research that is going on in our field of music psychology. Consider my summary to be a light review of the ‘state of the art’, and treat it as a prompt for those next steps that will move us all closer to understanding the power of music on our minds and bodies.

I have included links to all the articles that prompted the findings. Sadly not all will be free to access for you all, but remember you can always contact the corresponding author on a paper (name and address should be listed) and ask for a personal copy for educational purposes.

So…what do we know now that we did not know in 2015…

  • Personalized music therapy based on spectrally altered classical music can be effective in reducing subjective tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Infants who experience a parent singing to them look longer at a new person who sings the same melody than at a new person who sings an unfamiliar melody, and the amount of song exposure at home predicted the size of that preference. Neither effect happens, however, when infants hear the song from a toy or from a socially unrelated person, despite all these infants’ remarkable memory for the familiar melody more than 8 months later. These findings suggest that melodies produce live by known social partners carry special social meaning for infants
  • A systematic review of randomized controlled trials conducted to date on the impacts of music on premature infants has revealed that whilst some music interventions show promising results in some studies, the variation in quality of the studies, age groups, outcome measures and timing of the interventions across the studies makes it difficult to draw strong conclusions on the effects of music in premature infants. Overall, the jury is still out on this one…(i.e. lots of space for good new studies!)
  • Live music performance really can have a different impact on the human heart. An audience’s heart rate was found to be higher for a faster than a slower piece only in a live performance condition as compared to listening to the same music via a recording. Furthermore, in response to live music the audience’s sympathovagal balance was less while their vagal nervous system was activated more, which suggests that sharing ongoing musical moments with a live performer reduces an audience’s physiological stress.

There you go. Not an exhaustive list of new findings by any means but something to wet your appetite for learning and for the possibilities of the future. I feel like I have learned a lot just working on this list and I hope that you find it inspiring as well. Here’s to another year of great discoveries. Come on Dear Reader, let’s have a great 2017 🙂

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Musical chills are in the eye of the beholder Fri, 28 Oct 2016 16:30:55 +0000 Afternoon Dear Reader,

cv2jtsvvuaajyujIt’s a rather grey and dull late October day here in York, but mild and dry at least for the time of year. The lack of rain bodes well for the York Illumination Festival which is attracting a lot of well deserved attention in my home town. The festival happens every year now and has one main aim – to show our wonderful city off in a whole new ‘light’.

This evening my dear husband and I plan on taking a walk to enjoy the streets in their temporary multicoloured overcoat. We might even treat ourselves at the fresh doughnut wagon! A jolly plan to banish coming winter blues.

A stunning piece of visual art or music has the potential to give the lucky consumer a case of the ‘chills’. This peak emotional experience is marked by shivers down the spine and along the extremities, the hairs standing on the back of the neck, bumps on the skin (in his native Spanish my husband calls this reaction ‘chicken skin’, which I love), a dry mouth and a racing heart. These are all physical manifestations of a deep psychological experience of pleasure, triggered by activity of neurotransmitters such as dopamine being released deep within ancient survival centres of the brain.

Not everyone gets chills however, people who do report that the experience is consistent to the same music over long periods of time. In a recent class I was asked by a student if there was any evidence that the brain response could be exhausted by listening to the music over and over again; in effect, can you kill a chill? I don’t think that has ever been tested, but given that the music pieces that trigger chills tend to be favourites for each listener we can assume they have heard them many times over the course of their life and yet the chill response continues.

There is also scientific evidence from the animal kingdom that reward responses of this kind don’t tend to satiate over the long term. A rat who is given a lever to push that stimulates similar brain circuitry to that active during a chill experience in humans will press and press that lever at the expense of almost anything else, never seeming to tire of the experience.

eyeI have written blogs on how chills experience happens and who gets chills the most, as and when new research has appeared. This week I found a new paper that adds a new physiological reality to the chills experience, a new measure that scientists can look at to see how this rare psychophysiological event impacts on our bodies.

Researchers have been looking into our eyes….

The new paper is open source, published in ‘Consciousness and Cognition’ and is called Music chills: the eye pupil as a mirror to music’s soul.

The authors of the new paper were interested to find out if there was any relationship between the extent that our pupils become dilated and reports of musically induced chills. In their own words:

“…our present aim here was to determine whether pupil diameter, which has been little investigated in relation to music and, in particular, the occurrence of intense responses to music, can provide a particularly relevant and possibly universally-applicable measurement of intense emotional responses to music”

Changes in pupil diameter are an automatic body response so are not under our direct control.  As such they are referred to as an ‘honest signal’ of our internal states. The interest is therefore in identifying another body signature of chills, but also in determining whether degree of pupil dilation might bear a relation to the degree of our emotional reaction to a piece music; testing the eye as a potential window to our deepest instant reactions to music. A fascinating idea.

Other than in response to changes in light, why do our pupils dilate and what does it really mean?

1 – Something has grabbed our attention. Our pupils dilate to indicate a special focus of our conscious minds. This has nothing to do with our reaction or the valence of the experience, just the grab.

As a journalist wrote in The Scientist (December 6, 2012): ‘‘What do an orgasm, a multiplication problem and a photo of a dead body have in common?”. It is a high and intensity level of attention processing at that point in time as compared to our normal mental tick over rate.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. The goddess Venus is the classical personification of beauty.

The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli. The goddess Venus is the classical personification of beauty.

2 – Emotional/ aesthetic triggers. This has to do with the valence of our response, which goes beyond simply having your attention grabbed.

Our pupils dilate when we engage emotionally with an external stimulus (positive or negative) or an idea, and when we find something to be aesthetically pleasing.

The evolutionary reason for this response is thought to be partly linked to our fear/ startle response, when we instantly need to get a clearer picture of something that has triggered a fast emotional response. At these times the eyes open wide to allow us to monitor a larger visual field area.

3 – Neural/neurophysiological processing. An increase in brain activity, especially an increase in system connections, can also trigger pupil dilation. In particular, the authors of the present study point out that as well as the well explored dopamine system, music listening has been linked to activity within the locus coeruleus (LC), a brain hub for the production of the neuromodulator NorEpinephrine (NE).

The LC-NE system has been little studied in relation to music, but there are reasons to think that this system, alongside the dopamine pathways, may support the chill experience in music. And if the LC-NE system is involved then we would expect to see pupil dilation.

So there could be many reasons, and likely more than one, why our pupils might dilate in response to musical chills. We know the pupils dilate more when looking at increasing aesthetic beauty (paintings or fellow humans). But is the same true of musical chills?


The 52 participants in this study (mean age = 31.98; range = 21–59: 28 female) were asked to provide 3 musical pieces that they believed reliably gave them chills. These pieces were played in the lab, via headphones, while participants kept their eyes open onto a blank grey screen and their gaze was monitored by an eye-tracker.

Funnily enough there was no overlap whatsoever in the chosen chill music – so the authors ended up with 156 pieces of chill music. That goes to show the importance of musical preferences and life experiences that lay behind why we get musical chills.

What genre were represented? It would be easier to ask which were not! The list included Blues, Jazz, Classical, Pop, Soul, Hip Hop, Rap, Funk, Folk, R&B, Rock, Metal, Punk, Indie, Folk, Ambient, Trance, Electronica…and so on…

Pupil dilation measurement

Pupil dilation measurement

In addition, the authors played 3 control songs to each participant (i.e., 3 songs selected by another of the participants, matched by sex and age) to assess how chills depend on musical preference more than on a person’s generic propensity to react intensively to musical stimuli.

There were two phases to the main part of the study where participants heard their own chill music. First they listened and indicated with button presses exactly when chills occurred (active condition). Then they listened again to the music without doing anything and pupil response was measured at the points known to trigger chills (passive condition). Hence the measure was taken in a pure listening situation rather than reflecting any requirement to push buttons.

The results

o-brain-music-pleasure-facebookAll but one participant got chills to their self selected music in the lab. And some people reported chills to their non-selected music (i.e. the chill music of other people).

The frequency of chills was significantly and very much higher in the self-selected music condition, the difference being roughly an average of 1 chill to non-selected music vs. 8 chills to self-selected music.

33 participants data were analysed for the pupil measurements on the basis that they had a minimum of 3 chills in the study, so their responses could be averaged.

Measures were taken based on a two second window around the time that a chill was thought to be happening, according to the button presses in the earlier part of the trial.

At the moment of an intense emotional response, the point of a chill, pupils were larger than the typical pupil size to the whole song.

Pupils were also found to be significantly more dilated to chills from self-selected songs compared to chills triggered by non-self selected songs.

In another interesting finding pupil dilation reduced as the experiment went on, which suggests that although chill responses to the same song may not diminish over the long term, the chill response itself can be exhausted in the short term if you try to trigger it over and over again in the space of a few minutes.

Take aways

“We found that the eye pupil diameter mirrors intense responses to music” – indeed they did, and it was interesting to see that this response is sensitive enough to pick up stronger and weaker chills (based on self-selected vs. non self-selected chill experiences) and is so automatic that it can be picked up in a passive listening condition, where the participant is not responding in any way to the chill they feel.

pleasure-music-7617937The authors speculate that their data supports the relatively new idea that musical chills stimulate not only the dopamine system, but also the engagement of the LC-NE system. This system is associated with the functional interaction of diverse brain systems (as we know is necessary in music processing) and focused attention.

In pupillometry we researchers now have a new objective way to determine the basic occurrence of musical chills – a method that is a lot cheaper and less time consuming than brain imaging techniques! Not only this, but this research has opened new theories as to why chills happen, implicating wider brain systems than simply reward.

Warning – fake ICMPC site Thu, 20 Oct 2016 07:58:22 +0000 Dear Reader,

fake-website-iconThis will be a short note intended as a warning against a new and nasty trend on the internet – fake conference websites.

This may not be ‘new’ in general, but for the first time I have been alerted to a fake site aimed at stealing money from music psychology students/ colleagues. I want to make sure I make as much noise as I can about this issue so that these fakers do not succeed in their aim to steal credit card details and money from our community.

The fake site seems not to work in some countries so it is a good thing if you can’t see it. If you do want to take a look at the fake site – and it is convincing at first glance – then here it is: – THIS IS A FAKE WEBSITE!!

The wesbite claims to be promoting “ICMPC Madrid 2017” and takes a lot of text from the normal International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC) website. It is not until you look at the details of things like the conference photos and the committee list that it is clear this is not a real site. However, it has a real money portal ready to take credit card payments for registration, which is listed as costing up to 450 Euros.

I have been in contact with members of the ICMPC committee and the presidents of ESCOM, SMPC and APSCOM – none of them know anything about this conference and they are discussing how to warn our community against this breed of online scam.

All the REAL conferences in our discipline are listed here at If you know of any genuine conferences that are not listed there then please use my contact page above to send me details and I will list it for you.

The real next ICMPC meeting (ICMPC15) will next be held in 2018 – I hope to see you there!

All very best wishes,

Music for stress reduction – social context matters Wed, 14 Sep 2016 07:21:16 +0000 Dear Reader,

I am back from summer holidays. Gosh – that was needed! I had a lovely break, spending time with family and friends, doing jobs arond the house, and visiting the beautiful city of Florence for the first time.

Rest and relaxation of the kind I have experienced in the past couple of weeks is so important for the mind, but also the body. It is easy forget that your body can become tired when your job is largely sitting down all day. This situation puts pressure on the legs and spine, as well as reducing the bodies ability to flush out toxins. I needed time to take regular exercise and eat well – and I am feeling much better for it 🙂

I hope you enjoyed a nice summer, Dear Reader. Autumn is fast coming upon us and a new academic year will soon begin. Life at my University is starting to kick into high gear once again and our thoughts are turning to the fresh and hopeful faces that will soon arrive for their undergrad and postgrad degree training. We look forward to meeting you all!

Before the new term strikes I wanted to touch base and tell you about a nice paper I read recently by Linnemann et al.  that connects to my research on Music and Wellbeing. Many people are interested in the psycho-biological effects of music – how music impacts on our body systems that then cascades towards a psychological response. In the present case of interest, the brain body chain reaction of interest relates to stress.

Stress, as we all know, is a good thing in the short-term (it helps keep us out of danger) but a bad thing in the long term (it wears us down).

Stress reactions are associated with a basic body response we call ‘fight or flight’.

When faced with a perceived threat, real or imagined, the brain increases production of stress hormones that impact our body states (heart rate, blood pressure, digestion) and how we feel.

One key brain regulation system involved in this process is the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis can be measured indirectly by tracking level of cortisol. Lots of cortisol = lots of HPA activity = the experience of stress.

Many studies have shown that music is associated with HPA axis activity, as it can both increase and decrease cortisol levels.

Another stress marker is an enzyme found in our saliva called alpha-amylase. One study showed that listening to music prior to a stress trigger was associated with faster recovery, as measured by alpha-amylase levels, compared to a non-music condition.


music_listenerWhilst we know that music can impact on our stress experience, as measured by cortisol and alpha amylase, there has been little investigation into the context of these effects. A new study sought to refine our knowledge by asking about the effects of different social contexts on these effects.

Most studies in this area of literature have looked at the effects of inidividual music listening, a lot of the time using headphones. There are some studies of stress responses as part of group music making (e.g. singing, drumming), but these compound activity and listening so the pure effect of a social setting on music listening cannot be attributed.

This is a rather surprising gap in the literature, since many impacts of music are associated with social context, for example feelings of belonging (linked to wellbeing) and social cohesion. Having a place in the world. There are also benefits of music listening when that music brings up thoughts of other people.


The presence of others while listening to music will enhance the stress-reducing effect of listening to music.

The familiarity of people will modulate this effect – greater attenuation of stress is predicted when people are surrounded by friends as opposed to strangers.

The Test

The authors tested 53 healthy young adults as part of their regular daily routine, to give the study that all important real world feel (high ecological validity).

Participants were provided with a pre-programmed iPod Touch, which they were asked to carry with them for 7 days. There were 4 main assessments each day after an initial morning prompt (11am, 2pm, 6pm and 9pm) where people reported their data using the Touch. They reported whether music listening had occured since the last prompt and if so the social context, i.e. the presence of others and their familiarity. Reasons for music listening were also reported and happiness of the music was ranked. The volunteers collected their own saliva samples at each prompt for later analysis of both cortisol and alpha amylase.


Statistical models were created to investigate the relationships between the control variables (gender, social context, control over music choice) and the outcome variables (subjective stress level (self report), cortisol, alpha amylase), as well as the predicted impact of familiarity in social context.

Music listening was reported at 38.5% of the prompts over the 7 days.

Of those episodes, 35% occured in the presence of others, more often with friends (64.3%) than strangers (35.7%)

Overall stress level was at an average self-report figure of 1.25;  the average was 1.27 when alone vs. 1.04 in the presence of others. This main effect, a reduced reported level of stress in a social context, was statistically significant. This result makes intuitive sense as many stressful situations occur when we are alone (e.g. at work) and can’t interact with others. But does music enhance the stress reducing effects associated with social situations?

The models suggest yes. There was an interaction between the level of stress reported in the presence of others vs. the presence of others while listening to music, meaning listening to music had a significant additional and unique effect in social situations that can’t just be explained by the presence of others.

The presence of music in social situations also explained a small degree of unique reduction effect on levels of cortisol (2.25% additional variance for the geeks out there) and alpha amylase (2.91%)

However, the second hypothesis, that the familiarity of the people would matter, was not supported by the evidence. The presence of others enhanced the stress reducing impacts of music, but this effect was no bigger if those people were friends.

Interestingly the ‘music with others’ effect was also not related to the reported reason for music listening. It did not seem to matter whether or not the people intended to try to relax with music listening or were listening for another reason (e.g. just to fill the background).


The perceived and real (i.e. body based) relaxing effect of music are slightly enhanced in all social situations (not just familiar) compared to when we listen to music alone.

The authors of this paper suggest that this interesting finding is in line with the stress-buffering hypothesis of social support. Just the presence of others is enough to boost a relaxation effect, irrespective of any special task instructions or special relationships with those people.

One general idea to explain this result is that the presence of music can enhance the potential for feeling social connectedness and cohesion, and for positive emotional interactions. This is a state which we find relaxing. Seen in this light, music has an INDIRECT effect on our health, by virtue of it promoting a general social-related wellbeing mechanism. An interesting idea.

Would this social boost mechanism differ between music listening and music making? My particular interest in regards this paper is the use of live music as an activity in care homes. Here the evidence to date suggests that both music listening and music making are associated with positive effects on emotional state and social interactions, as long as the activities are group based rather than conducted in isolation. It is possible therefore that at least some of the ‘music with others’ stress reducing effect reported here is common to all musical situations.

The real world context of this study is especially interesting as well. So much of what we know about the stress reducing effects of music comes from lab studies, which have the advantage of being better controlled and balanced, but lack the ecological validity – the confidence that the brain and body would really react this way out of an unfamiliar lab setting.

Overall, this is a well conducted study with an intriguing story to tell. We often dismiss music listening as a background activity that, while pleasant, has little real measurable effect on our big body and brain systems – you need to get active in music making to get those big effects. I still believe that the effects of simple music listening on systems like the stress-monitoring HPA axis are fairly small and variable, however, it is thought provoking to consider that the presence of others might enhance the positive effects that music listening can have on our perceived stress levels.


Link to the paper:

Could you spot the professional? Thu, 07 Jul 2016 12:12:41 +0000 Hello Dear Reader,


Pixabay image

One the biggest conferences in music psychology is going on right now in the beautiful city of San Francisco, ICMPC 14. This meeting always boasts a wealth of fascinating talks and posters from the cutting edge of research in music behaviour, neuroscience, education, development, perception, cognition…and many more!

I am not there. This makes me very sad, Dear Reader. I simply did not have the funds to attend; times are tough in UK research money right now and I had to prioritise student stipends and lab equipment.

Hey ho, there is no use complaining. I am enjoying the social media feeds from the conference (follow #ICMPC14 on Twitter) and I am sure I will spend many enjoyable hours diving around in the conference proceedings. So much to learn!

In the meantime, here I sit in my little office thinking of you, Dear Reader, and what we might chat about today. I decided to talk about music performance – do you think that you could spot a professional performance just from an audio recording?

This question is linked to some of my latest research. Last week I spent time back in my second home in Switzerland at the Hochscule Luzern Musik. As usual I enjoyed the stimulating company (and endless hospitality) of my Swiss colleagues. For the most part we focused on the latest data from our study of classical music critics. My Music and Wellbeing colleague Dr. Elena Alessandri has been running our interview study, asking professional critics about their work and their opinions as to the role of critique in the modern classical market. I have little doubt that these individuals, with the finely tuned responses and many years of experience, would do a good job of spotting a professional performance in a group of recordings. But what about the rest of us?

A new study by Carolyn Kroger and Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis has the intriguing title “But they told me it was a professional“. Published this year in the journal Psychology of Music, the paper examines whether factors other than the quality of the performance itself might lead people to view it more favourably. These other influences are called the extrinsic factors, and include what you are told about the performance and, interestingly, the order in which you hear a performance (first or second). Do these extrinsic factors really influence our preferences?

Our evaluative judgements are complex and in reality it comes as no surprise that extrinsic context, the world outside the music and its performance, influences what we think is more or less valuable/ good. Our judgements are based on many things including, but not always, our emotional reaction, personality, familiarity with the work, mood, and even the price of the item or ticket.

American_Idol_Experience_stagePerformance evaluation is a touchy subject for many. In a world where music exams and competitions mean so much and come down to human judgement, it can be hard to accept that in some studies inter-rater agreement level can reach a staggeringly low .09 to .16 (Fiske, 1978).

Fortunately for music students and artists,this level of variance goes down significantly when the judges are highly trained in the repertoire and instrument/voice being assessed – hence my belief that the music critics from my Swiss study really know their stuff when it comes to piano recordings.

However, there is the fascinating question of what kind of context can really influence the judgements of you and me, the ordinary music lover with no particular training or expertise in regards most of the music we like. Are we at the mercy of what we are told about a performance or the way it is presented to us?

The new study

The new paper examines how listeners with a good amount of general musical training and expertise are impacted by the presentation of extrinsic information before listening to a performance.

In the first experiment people were asked to listen to two performances of the same piece and to rate their enjoyment and the perceived quality of each. Crucially they were asked to select which in the pair was performed by a “world-renowned professional” and which by a “conservatory student of piano”.

In a follow-up experiment the study was repeated except that half the people were intentionally told incorrect information, that the performer was the student and vice versa.

The prediction

If people are able to distinguish the performances based on the intrinsic qualities of the performance then they should prefer the professional regardless of where the performance appears in the order of presentation (first or second), and regardless of how they are primed (i.e. what they are told about the person).


Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

The stimuli were 90-120 second segments of 8 piano pieces from the common practice period. These included piano pieces by Beethoven (Sonata in E, Op. 109, II), Mozart (Sonata in B Flat, K.570, II) and Brahms (Intermezzo in E, Op. 116, No. 4). The professional performances were recorded by the likes of Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Nikolai Demidenko. Student performances were drawn from user-uploaded recordings on the Internet as well as email submissions for the study.

The presentations were different for four groups of people. Some were given a mix of professional and student pieces to listen to (SP, PS). Half were given the same performance twice (SS, PP), but were told they were two different performances. I like to think I might spot a duplication like this, but apparently people don’t!

The ratings from the 40 participants (80 in total, two experiments) were done on 7 point scales. Participants were asked about their enjoyment and performer skill level in relation to tempo, dynamics, and expression. The middle of the scale was always “just right” with the extremes being “much too…” or “far too…” (slow (fast) / soft (loud) / (in)expressive/ (un) conventional).


Overall, people were more likely to say that a piece was performed by a professional when it really was – phew! Some relief for our ears there.

However, there was an additional effect of order. People rated the second performance as the professional on 62.8% of occasions, when random assignment should have led to a 50% rate if there were no bias.

Another matter influenced by order was the expressivity ratings. Expressivity was more likely to be rated higher in the second performance of a pair, including on specific measures of how good were the expressions of tempo and dynamics.  Remember – in some cases these ratings were applied to exactly the same piece of music, just heard for the second time.

When people rated a performance as highly enjoyable they were much more likely to rate the performer as skilled. Interestingly however, skill and quality did not differ signficantly as a function of performer type or order.

In Experiment 2 we see the effects of prior information – basically of lying to participants about who is the professional. Overall, people preferred the performance that they were told was performed by the “world-renowned professional” on 65.3% of occasions, 15.3% higher than predicted by chance.

Again, there was an effect of order. When the first piece was primed as “professional” it was preferred on 56.9% of occasions; when the “professional” label was given for the second piece it was preferred 73.8% of the time.


Alfred Brendel

Alfred Brendel

This study shows that intrinsic factors, the professional ability of a performer, do still matter when we listen to a recording. People were able to pick out the professional more than would be expected by chance (Exp.1) and enjoyed their performance on more occasions than those given by the still developing students.

The other side to the coin is that extrinsic factors are not to be treated lightly; they have an effect on our reactions to a music performance. As in many things, we often prefer a performance that is familiar, when we hear it for the second time. Also, we are vulnerable to what we are told – responses can be shifted signifcantly when we are given information about the professional standing of the performer (even when that information is a lie).

We should bear in mind that the pieces in this paper that were played by “students” were all of conservatory quality so would be jolly impressive. In these terms it is actually quite impressive that the average music lover, someone with no particular expertise in the instrument or repetoire, can spot the professionals based soley on the accoustic quality of a recording. However, this research adds to a body of evidence that extrinsic factors like concert notes (Margulis, 2015) and familiarity with a piece (in this case immediate repitition) can shape our opinion of a music performance.


Brain binding of music and lyrics Mon, 04 Apr 2016 10:30:17 +0000 Hello Dear Reader,

It is a grey and rainy Monday here in York. I am doing my research and writing while staring out at my pot plants, which all look happy to by enjoying a good shower. My grandma always tried to put a positive spin on such gloom by referring to her precious garden – ‘It’s good growing weather’.

Taking inspiration from the plants, let’s grow a little too; in knowledge. My scholar alert lead me to a new paper over the weekend that peaked my interest as it relates to one of my ongoing research collaborations. I am working with Dr. Jakke Tamminen (Royal Holloway) on a project that looks at how music influences the way we learn new words. Our first paper was recently accepted by MemoryIn the paper we showed an impact of familiar (not with unfamiliar) music on long-term (over the course of one week) consolidation of new words in the mental lexicon. Our next studies will look into the mechanisms for this music-boost learning effect and will investigate aspects of music, such as tempo and rhythm, that have not yet manipulated.

The new study on my horizon is by Irene Alonso and her colleagues, and looks at the brain basis on how we integrate music and lyrics. This is a process that seems effortless, but in reality is a highly complex cognitive act that relies on binding, the process by which we combine otherwise separate streams of information.

The question is, to what extent are similar brain systems activated when we learn music and lyrics together vs. in isolation?

The brain

One important memory area of the brain is the Medial (in the middle), Temporal (behind your ears) Lobe (brain area).

MTL activity occurs when we learn a new song and successfully recognise it later on. MTL contains, amongst others, a structure known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus has long been associated with memory activity, but also with spatial awareness and temporal sequencing.

The researchers decided on a simple test of the hippocampus function in binding music and lyrics in song. They presented either:

1 – music and lyrics together, i.e. in song form or;

2- lyrics written on a screen with a tune sung to ‘la’ at the same time

If the hippocampus is involved in stitching music and lyrics together then there should be more hippocampal activity in task 2, compared to task 1.

Another brain area of interest to the researchers is the Inferior (below – closer to your neck than your scalp) Frontal (yep, at the front) Gyrus (a ridge in the cortex). The IFG tends to be activated by tasks that require structural understanding. Since the sung stimuli involve sentences it would be expected to see some IFG activity as the brain processes the syntax online.

My hypothesis is that you might see more IFG activity in task 2, if the IFG is involved not only in basic syntax (which should be the same in both tasks) but also in an element of binding in memory.

The study

Twenty-two non-musician participants with normal auditory imagery ability (Bucknell Auditory Imagery Scale) took part in the study.

Two sets of 54 pairs of songs with interchangeable lyrics and melodies were created based on a collection of 19th Century French folk songs.

Syllables were matched to musical notes on a one-to-one basis. Each lyric consisted of 6 to 9 pronounced syllables and each melody consisted of 6 to 9 notes. The resulting songs had a variable duration between 2.5 and 3 seconds.

The test took place in the fMRI scanner so the researchers could measure brain activity during each trial. Every to-be learned song was presented twice, followed by a period of 6 seconds where they were told to rehearse the new song in their minds. They then heard the next new song.

The participcants heard (task 1) or read (task 2) 6 new songs in total.

After the encoding phase, the recognition phase began where participants heard the 6 new songs mixed in with 6 ‘false’ (red herring) songs which had mixed up the lyrics and tunes that were presented at encoding.

Participants had 3 seconds to press one of four buttons to the question, was that one of the new songs: “No, sure”, “No, not sure”, “Yes, not sure”, “Yes, sure”.


The results

All participants recognized the new songs above chance in the unified condition (task 1). This suggests that participants could successfully memorise the bound lyrics and melodies. Fewer people (15/22) did well with task 2, confirming that the requirement to bind lyrics and music in the mind is more difficult than when they are presented unified.

  • Brain activation related to successful memorisation in task 1 was seen in the left IFG together with activation in the bilateral Medial Temporal Gyrus (MTG) and the left postcentral gyrus
  • Brain activation related to successful memorisation in task 2 was seen in the hippocampus, MTG, left caudate, the right IFG, right superior frontal gyrus, left middle frontal gyrus, and bilateral cerebellum

Harder task = more cognitive effort = more brain activity! This might seem obvious as a result, but it is the pattern of additional activity that is interesting.

The IFG was stimulated in task 1, confirming that this area is interested in structured auditory stimuli. It is also active in task 2, but not more so, suggesting that it is mostly interested in structure, which is similar across both tasks.

NIA_human_brain_drawingThe hippocampus comes into play during task 2, suggesting it is involved in the complex binding as opposed to just any old memory task.

Also of note was that MTG activity was greater in task 1. This authors suggests that perhaps the MTG is activated more by perceptual richness in the stimuli. Bound lyrics and song will be richer in the auditory domain than reading the lyrics and hearing ‘la’ over and over again.

Another possibility is that MTG (as well as IFG) is involved in covert rehearsal on songs within the phonological loop; more MTG activity in task 1 simply reflects the fact that rehearsal is easier when the song is presented as a whole than when you are required to piece it together from its parts.



Brain structures that were key to the encoding of successfully remembered songs were the hippocampi on both sides of the brain, as well as the right IFG. So both brain areas of interest in our introduction were active, though in a slightly different way to my expectations.

The present results extend the role of IFG and MTG, from the recognition and imagery of familiar songs (Herholz et al., 2012) to new songs. However, it remains open if other non-verbal auditory binding examples, such as for instance timbre and melody, may depend on similar mechanisms, or whether IFG involvement is restricted to binding melodic and verbal information.

The greater activation of the hippocampus in task 2 as opposed to task 1 is curious. The authors suggest this supports the role of this brain area in binding, though of course it could just be a reflection of increased memory demand between task 1 and 2.

Other brain areas of interest that popped up in task 2 were the basal ganglia (caudate) and cerebellum. There was no real prediction for these areas beforehand though the authors interpret their involvement as a reflection of the importance of timing and sequencing networks when learning a new song. In particular, task 2 puts a greater strain on the need to form a temporal context, to stitch word and note together in time.

These brain areas are involved in motor planning of course, so their activation could reflect the involvement of a larger motor network that was required to help bind and rehearse new written lyrics to a new melody.


The authors observed involvement of the hippocampus along with a complex auditory– motor network engaged in timing and sequencing processing for binding lyrics and melodies when they are presented separately.

In other words, when you learn a new song there is an extensive network of auditory and motor systems, along with basic memory processes and language comprehension areas, that help you encode a tune and lyrics without you having to make a sound or move a muscle.

This network has to work harder and extend to wider systems if song elements are broken apart, for example if trying to learn lyrics by reading them while the tune is played. This harder task can be done, but fewer people can take in new songs well this way. We are built to hear and remember song as we produce it – as one package.

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Does musical training help reading skills? Wed, 16 Mar 2016 13:37:30 +0000 Dear Reader,

York DaffsFinally – some sun on this little island!

I am enjoying this delightful early spring day with a small decaf coffee (some of you may know I am not able to consume caffeine) and a faceful of bright sunshine. What a difference it makes. The daffodils are coming out in York!

Today’s blog takes its title from a new paper by Reyna Gordon and colleagues (USA) that I am sure will be of interest to many of you. The paper in question is a meta-analysis, a powerful review of multiple studies.

The aim of the paper is to assess whether musical training is associated with a measurable improvement in children’s reading skills and in particular their phonological awareness.

child readingLearning to read makes heavy demands on the process of phonological awareness. That is, the ability to focus attention on individual phonological units within syllables/words, and to sound them out effectively in your mind.

It is one of the early crucial stages of alphabetic decoding.

Good basic auditory perception is a necessary foundation for phonological awareness and we know already that musical training is associated with improvements to auditory perception skills (Shahin et al., 2003; Kraus et al., 2014). This and other links between perception skills, neural changes and language skills are detailed in Patel’s OPERA framework hypothesis (2014)

However, this relationship between music and reading it is not direct. It offers us insights into potential mechanisms to effect, why music training might improve literacy, but when we add up all the evidence to date is it really true that introducing musical training can help boost reading skills?

First – two notes on the need for caution.

1 – Measures of music aptitude have been found to account for over 40% of the variance in reading performance in typically developing 8-13 year old children who have little to no musical training. This means we need to account not only for musical training but the baseline musical abilities of children. Hence, a lot of studies that just compare musicians and non-musicians without decent controls need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

2 – Another important point is that, yes, it is exciting to show brain changes in response to musical training. However, these findings need to be translated into real behavioural outcomes that matter in the classroom. If a studies outcomes can’t be expressed in this way then they are minimally useful to those who are seeking to support the development of effective strategies for impacting on academic achievement.

The present paper’s meta analysis can add in a number of ways to the ongoing debate:

1 – It focuses on studies that show measurable behavioural outcomes

2- It focuses on studies that have control groups

3 – It helps to identify common attributes of the different musical training paradigms that might be effective

4- It helps to account for variability across results, so it can factor out elements such as the age of children and the quantity (amount) of training received

img-detectiveThe first step in any meta analysis is a good trawl of the literature. The present authors searched 12 of these databases with key terms to uncover 4855 related articles. That is a lot.

These papers were reduced to 178 by imposing selection criteria (only peer reviewed journal articles in English). A second stage then saw studies excluded if they did not have a control group, did not assess reading pre- and post- intervention, did not provide equal reading training across groups, or did not provide sufficient data to allow the authors to extract the effect size.

That sweep left 12 articles and 13 individual studies (one paper had two separate studies).

Participants in the studies ranged in age from 4.53 – 9.33 years. Range of musical training quantity involved in each intervention varied hugely from 3 to 90 hours. Nearly all the studies featured singing, 9 featured rhythm training, and smaller collections featured visual notation training, rhyming, or clapping/ marching.

IQ was reported as equivalent in 9 out of 13 studies and socio-economic status only in 6 out of 13. Only 6 of the studies used ‘true’ random assignment. Control groups varied, some doing phonological training (3), some doing sport/ arts (3), and some using a ‘no treatment’ alternative (6), which is less powerful than a true matched control. These figures go to show how few papers apply a good gold standard of decent control to their studies, something we should really encourage in future work.

The final analysis of musical training influence on all phonological awareness scores revealed a modest effect size of 0.20, a small but significant difference between children who had musical training vs. those who do not.

  • When broken down, the effects of music on rhyming ability was non-significant. The authors model suggested that a minimum of 40 hours of musical training would be necessary for an effect to emerge for this particular reading related outcome.
  • There were only weak trends towards significance for other phonological outcomes and reading fluency when measured individually. In these cases there were no measurable impacts of a child’s age or the amount of training received.

Although these results might seem a little disappointing at first glance there is good reason to be excited. Meta-analysis results like these are powerful and having any effect stand up to this amount of close scrutiny is important and interesting.

Gordon and colleagues have reported a modest effect of musical training on the broad category of phonological awareness. The rest of the statistics probably fall a little flat due to a lack of power. We need more well done large studies to assess the true impacts of different sub-skills within the category of phonological awareness.

The finding regarding minimum hours is worth following up on. Many psychology studies report 100’s if not 1’000s of hours of training are necessary to have measurable impacts. Here we have evidence that, yes, one or two lessons won’t do much, but a good year (assuming the usual pattern of lessons once per week) will likely foster a positive change in rhyming ability. None of the studies that showed an improvement in rhyming as a result of musical training added any rhyming training to their intervention and instead, most strongly featured rhythmic work. The curious case of the power of rhythm continues…

COL; (c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

COL; (c) City of London Corporation; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

All in all the present authors describe their results as ‘somewhat inconclusive’ with regards the effect of music education on reading skills. I like a cautious response, especially when it is backed by data. The underlying problem is the variability in the way that reading is tested and the way that musical interventions are run. Without more consistency across both factors it is difficult to get a clear picture. The hints are there but the strong evidence has yet to emerge.

I enjoyed the following quote provided by the authors:

“ the field of skill learning, transfer of learning from the trained task to even other very similar tasks is generally the exception rather than the rule

(Green & Bavelier, 2008)

That idea is consistent with what I have observed in psychology over the years, especially in my field of memory. Memory experts tend to misplace their keys just as much as the rest of us…but boy, can they count cards!

A cautious approach to the question of musical training transfer is a welcome voice in the field. We don’t want to run before we can walk and make strong claims without: 1) the evidence to back them up; or 2) the important knowledge regarding what aspects and how much training are necessary. This is what educators really need to know and what will make the case of music in education maximally impactful.

shhhhh-quiet-everyone-study-wallpaperI will end with the words of the present authors – I couldn’t agree more.

The present finding converges with the hypothesis that music supports phonological awareness; further study is needed to determine if intensive and long-term musical training can enhance reading fluency via improvements to auditory skills, phonological awareness, and rhyming in particular

Link to the paper (Open Access)

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Feeling groovy – microtiming in swing and funk Wed, 20 Jan 2016 19:49:51 +0000 Hello Dear Reader,

Well, here we are in 2016! This blog enters its 6th year of existence and you and I continue to learn more and more about the wonderful world of music psychology. It makes me feel like having a little dance in celebration. And with that thought in mind, I turn to the new paper of interest for this blog.

Microtiming in Swing and Funk affects the body movement behaviour of music expert listeners by Lorenz Kilchenmann and Olivier Senn, published August 2015 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Lorenz and Olivier are colleagues of mine from the Hochschule Luzern in Switzerland. I was living in Luzern and working alongside their team during the time that Lorenz was collecting the data and Olivier was working away on the numbers. I know first hand about the great deal of time and effort that went into the study. I even did the prize draw for the participants! Hence I was very excited to see the paper finally in print and it is my pleasure to give you a run down of the juciest parts.

boogieMusical entrainment is the fancy term used by academics to describe our ability to move to a beat; to tap our feet, bob our heads, or clap our hands.

In my classes the example I always use is the Stevie Wonder track ‘Superstition’ (1972).

It is quite fun to play the track in class and tell the students to try to keep absolutely still. Don’t even twitch. It is harder than you think! Have a listen and play the game for yourself – Superstition (1972)

By the way did you know that Stevie Wonder was born Stevland Hardaway Morris? Fun fact for a quiz there.

The interesting point is that we don’t really know WHY we have this urge to move to music, let alone how we are able to keep a beat (the latter is a story for another day).

The new article tests the idea that tiny timing discrepancies in the performance of beat-oriented music, like Superstition, is what triggers entrainment. They call these timing triggers ‘Participatory Discrepancies’ or PDs.

PDs actually cover a range of tiny shifts in music structure that could include timing, pitch, timbre or dynamics, though today the term is used almost exclusively to refer to timing shifts in attack and release. According to Keil (1995), PDs are not a part of the composition but are created interactively in performance.

Image of a typical studio session, not the one from the study

Image of a typical studio session, not the one from the study

The authors of the present study wanted to use live performances rather than artifically created sound files, a step which I think marks an important shift in thinking in this field, since PDs are supposed to arise from natural musical communication between players. They recorded two professional musicians, a drummer and a bassist, playing in a studio jam session. They then manipulated the scaling of the magnitude in the PDs without changing the relationship between the onsets.

Previous research from Butterfield (2010) suggested that listeners could not consistently identify PDs of magnitude 30ms or less, which is odd given that most PDs in actual performance fall in this range.

So are PDs responsible for our urge to groove or not? Here is where the new experiment comes in.

As said above the authors used authentic performances, ensuring that the introduction of arbitrary introduction of PDs post hoc was not an issue. They used 20 seconds of two musical styles, Swing (150bpm: 12 bar harmonic sequence) and Funk (100bpm: 8 bar harmonic sequence).

Most importantly they not only took measures of perceived groove (i.e. questionnaires – to be reported in a later study) but they measured peoples’ actual beat-related head movements using motion capture technology.

During the original recordings the two musicians heard a metronome over headphones as a beat reference. The musicians themselves selected the recordings that they felt had the best groove.

The drum beats were later replaced by samples using a sub-millisecond precision software in order that the PDs could be manipulated in the experiment. The musicians checked the baseline recordings with the substituted drum track to ensure that aesthetic quality was not infringed.

Within each track (Swing and Funk) a metronomic grid was established that represented the pattern of timing events according to the strict timing of a metronome. The PD of each event (157 events in Swing, 214 events in Funk) was calculated as the extent to which each beat deviated from this grid.

Swing dance

Swing dance

In Swing the musicians played more events ahead of the grid than in Funk. This implies that Funk has a naturally ‘tighter’ adhearence to strict beat, which is in accordance with previous studies.

Furthermore the bassist had ‘looser’ timing than the drummer, which is again consistent with reports of timing from different instrumental experts.

For each style 12 manipulations were created: 6 scaled the PD 20% down from the original (tightened) and 6 scaled the PD 20% up from the original (loosened).

In the two extremes, the 100% shifts, the stimuli were perfectly quantized or ‘deadpan’ meaning that all event onsets sounded exactly on the metronomic time grid.

The study was carried out using 160 participants divided into four groups: one for each musical style and one for musical experts and one for non-experts. Participants listened to all the samples from their assigned style, randomized. They were also videotaped, though they were not told why this was being done at the time.

The authors hypothesised that the music clips with the original PDs would trigger the strongest entrainment in terms of how much people moved in response to the music.

Is this what happened?

Overall there were no differences between the two styles. What happened in Swing also tended to happen in Funk.

The first finding was that music experts reacted more strongly to the PD manipulations than the non-experts. This challenges the idea that entrainment is a universal response to music, though only in the sense of who actually moves and responds to groove in the ways measured in the study, the head movements. However, it might explain why previous studies did not find any influence of PDs on entrainment. Previous studies mostly used non-experts.

lilstenThe big surprise was that they found no evidence that the original PDs played by the musicians were associated with the strongest reaction in any of the listeners. In fact the samples shifted 60% down triggered more entrainment in listeners compared to the deadpan versions.

In other words people moved to music that was much tighter to strict metronome beat than the musicians had chosen to produce naturally.

Future studies have some fun avenues to follow. Firstly, the participants were seated in the present study, in deference to the fact that it took around 45 minutes. In the future, with fewer conditions, the authors can try more free movement conditions to see if reactions change.

They would also like to break down the idea of ‘music expert’ to look at more in depth ideas of musical experience, training and listening preferences.

Overall this new study offers some support for the idea that PDs may be at least partly responsible for why some of us feel the urge to groove to music. But the story is more complex than simple timing shifts.

Importantly there is growing evidence that the PD effect is a function of musical expertise, which means that PDs are unlikely to explain all our natural urges to groove, for example the moves we see in little babies. See this clip for an amusing aside on babies grooving. 

So what else might explain our grooviness? Two possibilities are beat salience and music loudness. The search for an answer continues …