Essay for Performers: Empirical Research and Artistic Expertise


Recently downloaded the latest Nosaj Thing album, Home. It’s less dub than his earlier stuff (which I also really enjoyed) but this album has been perfect background for writing and riding, while still rich enough for getting suspended in the sound. Or at least, that is its effect on me. The expert knowledge of a musician like Nosaj Thing is in the insights which enable his craft: sensitivities and controls which give inspiring opportunities and the sufficiently successful results. You might not have the same response to the shimmering pads of Home, but enough people have enjoyed his style of output to encourage a third album release, giving value and credibility to his aesthetic choices. This knowledge through practice is, in essence, coming to know the world or some topic through anecdote: instances of trial and error without systematic investigation of what should or could happen. For an individual creator, the systematic approach would be ridiculously inefficient. When your priority is to make something, having some idea of what is possible in many cases is more useful than knowing everything about very few.

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Essays for performers: Instability and Determinism in the Brain


In the theory of mind debates, I am on the side of materialist monists. I accept determinism but because of chaos/complexity,  life as I experience it is still awesomely beautiful, and unpredictable, and thoroughly consciously lived. You might ask: How is that possible? Doesn’t determinism suck all the joy and hope and agency from life, leaving speculators listless or uncomfortable in the lie of freewill they must tell themselves to survive? Well, yes it does, if you only have a naive understanding of how deterministic systems behave.  Luckily, stuff is much more intricate than suggested by the demonstrations of newtonian physics presented in science class. I won’t try to explain how exactly consciousness arrises or agency operates, but the following is a series of ideas which make space for the influence of top-down thinking on an animal’s actions. Most of the relevant ideas come from math, specifically dynamical systems.

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New paper: Tension and local activity


I’ve got a new paper out, with Mary Farbood (first author) about ratings of musical tension to an interesting example of romantic lieder, Schubert’s Morgengruss. The link is not to the performance we worked with, which was the Pears and Britten recording, but I like this interpretation too.

My contribution is in the comparison between verses, identifying significant moments of tension rating increases and decreases which differed between verses, and discussing how that might be related to the singer’s articulation, contrast between successive verses, and other factors often overlooked in continuous parametrizations of musical stimuli. While displaying some of what activity analysis can do, numerically, it was also fun to put on my music theory hat to interpret what might be influencing listeners continuous ratings of tension.

Essays for performers: Perception, Action, Empathy


I’ve begun writing what I hope will be a regular series of short essays on performance and cognition, intended for non-neuroscience, non-music cognition readers. These should be treated as exercises rather than properly-formed treatments of issues dear to my heart. I don’t like writing, but I need the practice, and sharing is a good motivator for editing. Given those caveats, here is the first. Sorry for the second person.

Note: MOTL stands for More On That Later, signalling a topic I hope to return to another day.


Embodied perception, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy

Different parts of the brain are crucially involved in different cognitive functions. Sensory systems have key locations, auditory on the sides, vision in the back, and somatosensory arching between the ears. While thought doesn’t simply happen in discrete locations (MOTL), the sequences of neural activity (electric and chemical) that supports action, reaction, thought, and sensation concentrate in these areas, depending on what is going.

When we make an action, like when we say a word, the motor commands which run to the muscles in our face, throat, and abdomen are shadowed by efferent copies of the action to our sensory processing areas. The auditory cortex is readied to hear the acoustic consequences of speech, somatosensory cortex is prepared for our eventual lip and tongue positions (proprioception) and all the transient changes in how these sensitive areas are in tactile contact. Anticipated sensory consequences of our actions are then compared to inputs collected from our sensory organs such as the vibration of vocalisation through bone and acoustic reflections which reach our eardrums. Continue reading

Activity Analysis toolbox


Activity Analysis is descriptive and statistical method for interpreting the temporal coordination of measured events across synchronously recorded time series, developed to investigate collections of continuous responses to music like ratings of tension.

I’ve been developing Activity Analysis since 2007, when I was presented a bunch of continuous felt emotional intensity ratings from audience members attending a concert of orchestral Mozart music and asked to do what I could with them. Looking at the music cognition literature, I wasn’t all that pleased with the analytic options already in practice. Some were numerical dubious, others more statistically justified but none did a very good job of telling me WHEN interesting or important stuff was happening in the responses. There are lots of questions one can put to time series data, some of them good, many of them less useful, and my master’s thesis and the continuous response analysis wiki came out of a long process to understand what kinds of questions we have and could ask of temporal traces of experience.

The advantage of continuous responses for music is that time makes a nice firm causal anchor on what the listener knows and can respond to. While someone can have expectations (and memories) reaching into the future, and thoughts and feelings tying to the notes that have passed, the chronology of presentation  and the present are essential to the reception of music (and many other parts of the conscious experience). We have been recording continuous traces of listener experience for decades but the temporal power of these data has mostly lain dormant. Continue reading

New Blog just for Solo Response Project


I’m about to do a lot more writing on the Solo Response Project, and all of it will be on a new blog:

I’ll be writing about the responses to each stimulus, methodological decisions around the analysis, linking to data and code repositories for anyone keen on playing with these numbers and methods, and maybe even get some special guests to post on responses collected. 

So if you are keen, pick up the rss feed, bookmark the blog, or follow me on twitter, where I’ll point to interesting posts from time to time.