The Subject(s) at the Centre of Aesthetic Experiences

by Giacomo Bignardi, Kirren Chana, MacKenzie Trupp, & Sasha Koushk-Jalali

Reflections on Edward Vessel’s Introduction to Visual Neuroaesthetics

On 15th November 2018, MSc Music, Mind and Brain and MSc Psychology of the Arts, Neuroaesthetics and Creativity students had the pleasure of having Edward Vessel discuss the nature of visual aesthetic experiences and their neural correlates.

Edward Vessel Neuroaesthetics

Figure 1. Edward Vessel is a neuroscientist studying the neural basis of aesthetic experiences and the neurobiology of information foraging at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.

Just as philosopher G. Santayana (1995) defines ‘beauty’ as the pleasure evoked by an object, and not the object itself, Vessel studies aesthetic subject matter not based on the particularities of the stimuli but rather on subjective responses to them. Contrary to some philosophers, Vessel believes aesthetics should also be studied from a scientific perspective. According to him, ‘aesthetic appreciation represents a fundamental way of interacting with the world.’

Vessel has not set out to use brain imaging to define what is beautiful nor what art is, but instead stresses a distinction between external objective stimuli and internal subjective factors. Features of our visual world have less importance than the perceiver’s reaction to them. This focus of low-level (visual) vs higher-level (emotionally driven, or semantic) factors presents difficulties for aesthetic scientific research. To address this, Vessel stresses the importance of individual differences in aesthetic experiences, and rejects the use of a simple average as a tool to measure aesthetic preference. By definition, when one averages ratings of liking, one loses information about subjective preferences.

Pairwise Correlation, Mean Minus One, and the Central Role of Meaning

The pairwise cross-correlation distribution is a tool used to measure agreement. A pairwise cross-correlation is calculated using the correlations of ratings of all possible pairs.

cross-observer pairwise correlation
Figure 2. Vertical axis represents the number of pairs (people!). Horizontal axis represents the pairwise correlation values. The vertical line represents the average value for different distributions. The agreement bar on the left is a visual representation of how agreement changes as a function of the distribution. Images were computed in R-studio Version 1.1.419. The images were then post edited.

If the distribution is centred around 0, people had low agreement (i.e. low pairwise correlations), while if its centre is shifted toward higher numbers, we can say that people agree more.

What did Vessel do with this tool? He showed agreement on perceived beauty of images of abstract compositions is lower than those for images of real-world scenes. That is, people tend to agree when rating the perceived beauty of images of sceneries, but disagree for images that are abstract (Vessel & Rubin, 2010).

Individual preferences (Vessel & Rubin, 2010)
Figure 3. Agreement on ratings of abstract images (left) is lower than for images of real-world scenes (right). Source: Vessel & Rubin (2010).

This led Vessel to hypothesise that there is a central role of meaning (semantic) in aesthetic experiences: our experiences are generalisable by the degree to which we have shared semantic interpretations. If people interpret an object in the same way, their aesthetic reaction to it will probably be similar. That is, according to Vessel:

“Shared semantics leads to shared preferences”

Another powerful statistical tool that Vessel utilised to measure agreement, and once more the role of meaning, is Mean Minus One (MM1). This specifically measures shared and unique variance amongst participants’ ratings, and quantifies this to a value between 0 and 1. This is indicative of how much people agree between themselves, with 1 being a perfect match (100% of the variance is shared) and 0 being no agreement (0% of the variance is shared). Imagine collecting n x m ratings, where n = number of subjects and m = number of objects. This is roughly how MM1 is computed:

Mean Minus One (MM1)
Figure 4. Every column represents one participant, while every row represents one object. The numbers represent the measure of interests (ranging from 1 to 7 on a Likert scale measurement). Steps to compute MM1: 1) Compute the mean of the scores for object 1(first row) for every subject except for subject one (in first column) and iterate the process for m objects (row); 2) Compute the correlation between the ratings of subject 1 and the computed means; 3) Iterate the process, but excluding one new subject every time (e.g. Subject 2, 3… n); 4) Convert the correlation scores to z scores; 5) Compute the average of the z scores; 6) Convert z – to – r again.

Neuroaesthetics: from measure to brain correlates of subjective Aesthetic experiences

Vessel has stated that, broadly speaking, aesthetic experiences have higher-level (semantic) and lower-level (purely visual) aspects, with one level perhaps contributing more towards people’s overall reactions than the other. If this is the case, then are there measurable neural correlates associated with one or both of these states?

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a technique widely used to research neural correlates in neuroscience. This methodology allows neuroscientists to establish a neurological correlation of activated brain area and a specified task (such as aesthetic rating). fMRI studies suggest beauty, regardless of its modality source, is processed by the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) (Kawabata & Zeki, 2004; Isizhu & Zeki, 2011). However, Vessel does not seem convinced. Firstly, the mPFC processes several experiences beyond beauty, such as subjective value (Kable & Glimcher, 2007) and social cognition (Amodio & Frith, 2006), suggesting the mPFC may not be specific to processing beauty. Moreover, looking specifically at perceived beauty might narrow the broader question regarding aesthetic experiences.

Thus, Vessel shifted the focus from ‘how beautiful‘ to ‘how moving‘ images were with the following instruction:

“…Respond on the basis of how much this images ‘moves’ you… what works you find powerful, pleasing, or profound”

(Vessel, Starr & Rubin, 2012, p.3)
Figure 5. The Nightmare, 1781. Henry Fuseli. Hindola Raga, c. (1790–1800), Pahari Hills, Kangra school. An Ecclesiastic, c. 1874. Mariano José Maria Bernardo Fortuny y Carbo Constant, c. 1988. Valerie Jaudon.

Participants were instructed to translate the degree to which they were “moved” on a scale from 1 – 4 while in the fMRI scanner. Stimuli were photographs of paintings from a variety of artists, allowing individual preferences to emerge (we know this because MM1 results show low agreement across participants).

Occipito-temporal regions of the brain were found to be linearly related to ratings (more ‘moved by’ = more brain activation). Additionally, a network of anterior brain regions were activated only by images considered most ‘moving’ (rated as 4). Some of these specific locations are important hubs in the Default Mode Network (DMN) (Vessel, Starr & Rubin, 2012; 2013).

Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network (Vessel, E., Star, G., G & Rubin, N., 2013)
Figure 6. “Distinct patterns of response to artworks as a function of their ratings in a distributed network of brain regions” (Vessel, Starr, & Rubin, 2013). Image links to the paper.

Occipito-temporal regions in the brain process external stimuli, such as visual stimuli. Anterior regions process higher cognitive function, such as internally generated thoughts and emotions. The DMN is more active during non-task periods, and it is one of the brain networks associated with internally-oriented cognition (click here to read more about the DMN). When we are ‘moved by’ art, the network that processes external stimuli (Occipito-temporal) is engaged simultaneously with the network that processes internally oriented events (anterior/DMN). Vessel suggests that intense “aesthetic experience involve(s) the integration of sensory and emotional reactions in a manner linked with … personal relevance” (Vessel et al., 2012, p.1). Thus, it seems that ‘being moved’, which is an access point to aesthetic experiences, might be categorically different from other experiences.

For Vessel, this is only the beginning, as studying the aesthetic experiences of the subject rather than the subject matter will give a central role to meaning. Aesthetic experiences, aside from beauty alone, seem to constitute moments where the external world is meaningfully integrated by the internal one, leaving the individual moved.

35148f_8691ccb672274ecc85fdbd9f38b14700~mv2.gifFigure 7. Aesthetic Experiences = Boom. It seems that after a certain threshold is reached, aesthetic magic happens. Image: fuse* – Multiverse”. Courtesy of FUSE.


An Ecclesiastic, c. 1874. Mariano José Maria Bernardo Fortuny y Carbo Retrieved from

Amodio, D. M., & Frith, C. D. (2006). Meeting of minds: the medial frontal cortex and social cognition. Nature reviews neuroscience, 7(4), 268.

Hindola Raga, c. (1790–1800), Pahari Hills, Kangra school Retrieved from

Ishizu, T., & Zeki, S. (2011). Toward a brain-based theory of beauty. PloS one, 6(7), e21852.

Kable, J. W., & Glimcher, P. W. (2007). The neural correlates of subjective value during intertemporal choice. Nature neuroscience, 10(12), 1625.

Kawabata, H., & Zeki, S. (2004). Neural correlates of beauty. Journal of neurophysiology, 91(4), 1699-1705.

Mariano José Maria Bernardo Fortuny y Carbo Constant, c. 1988. Valerie Jaudon. Retrieved from

Multiverse. (2018). [Gif]. Retrieved from

Santayana, G. (1995). The sense of beauty: Being the Outlines of an Aesthetic Theory. New York: Dover (Original work published 1896).

The Nightmare, 1781. Henry Fuseli Retrieved from

Vessel, E. A. (2018). [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Vessel, E. A., & Rubin, N. (2010). Beauty and the beholder: highly individual taste for abstract, but not real-world images. Journal of vision, 10(2), 18-18.

Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2012). The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, 66.

Vessel, E. A., Starr, G. G., & Rubin, N. (2013). Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7, 258.

Zabelina, D. L., & Andrews-Hanna, J. R. (2016). Dynamic network interactions supporting internally-oriented cognition. Current opinion in neurobiology, 40, 86-93.


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How the brain entrains to musical rhythms.

‘How the brain entrains to musical rhythms’ was asked by our guest lecturer, Anna Katharina Bauer. To figure this out, we must first explore the concept of oscillation. Anna defined an oscillation as: ‘any system which uses periodic fluctuations between two states’ (see, Pikovsky et al., 2003). It could be like a pendulum of a clock, or a spring, or rockers at a concert jumping up and down. An oscillation has 3 key parameters, which are:

  • Amplitude (A): referring to the magnitude of the oscillation.
  • Frequency (f): referring to the number of cycles per unit of time (most of the time it’s in seconds).
  • Phase (Φ): referring to any point on this trajectory can described a phase.

Then, ‘What is a neural oscillation?’ Neural oscillation is very similar to an oscillation which is defined by amplitude, frequency and the phase. That is, ‘neural oscillations reflect periodic fluctuations in neural activity between high and low excitability states (Buzsaki & Draguhn, 2004).’

How do neural oscillations synchronize to external rhythms?

In 1665, a Dutch physicist, Huygens, observed two clocks which were very close together. After a while, he noticed that the pendulums started swinging in synchrony. After moving the clocks apart, they did not synchronize, as they had no natural influences. This explains how the neural oscillations synchronize to external rhythms – entrainment. Three requirements of this effect include:

  • Involvement of a self-sustained oscillator
  • Rhythmic stimulation
  • Synchronization



Entrainment has been observed through many biological systems such as the dancing of the fireflies, and the synchronized chirping of crickets. In humans, we have different kinds of entrainment. According to Dr. Bauer, body entrainment such as dancing with the music, synchronize to our breathing, and the most remarkable one is that our brain can also synchronize. Interestingly, it can be modulated through attentional mechanisms or temporal expectations – this will be explored further later.

How can we measure entrainment?

Once Anna established what entrainment was, she explored the concept of neural entrainment. During her PhD, Anna conducted two experiments which investigated the synchronization of neural oscillations to an external rhythmic stimulation by a phase alignment – neural entrainment. The first focused on temporal dynamics – where the evolution of neural entrainment was characterized through behavioral modulation and recorded EEG. Here, the auditory stimulations were long and short continuous tones, each with a slight gap (10-20ms) inserted at certain phases (see Henry and Obleser, 2012). The first image below indicates the behavior of individual participants as they were required to press a button when they heard the gap.


Source: Baeur et al. (2018)

As you can see, the participants were relatively accurate as their button-pressing closely followed the stimulation in a sinusoidal pattern. Interestingly, the participants were more accurate in the long condition – indicating that the more time they had to entrain, the greater the entrainment effects were. The image below indicates the neural activity in the frequency domain as evidence for neural entrainment.


Source: Bauer et al. (2018)

Evidently, there are spectral peaks in amplitude at 3Hz (stimulation frequency) and 6Hz (harmonic). This is further supported in the EEG topography images where we can see a frontocentral activation which is most likely projected from the auditory cortex. This indicates a solid measure of neural activity as evidence for neural entrainment. Inter-trial phase coherence within the time-frequency domain also evidences neural entrainment.

The second measure is called phase consistency, which is simply a measure of how consistent neural oscillations are along with the stimulation the brain has been entrained to. Using the same experimental paradigm Anna measured in phase in values between 0 (random phase) and 1 (perfect phase synchronization). She found that, within one second of stimulation, phase synchronization occurs. In other words, it only takes up to a second for the brain to entrain to a tone oscillation.

The underlying idea of synchronization is highly related to the anticipation mechanism. Once the subject has learned a rhythm, it is because they are able to anticipate the moment they have to press the button, that synchronization with the tone’s gap happens.

Again, the same as happened with accuracy in the long condition, the phase of the subjects’ neural oscillations would align faster with the phase of the tone in the long condition.

Her second experiment focused on cross-modal entrainment – where two types of stimuli used in entrainment both individually and combined. These two stimuli were auditory and visual, and this model was aimed to answer the following question:

Does visual rhythmic stimulation enhance auditory cortex activity and behavioural performance?

Here Anna focused on cross-modal entrainment using a similar experimental paradigm as in the first study but using magnetoencephalography (MEG) in addition. Participants were just required to detect the gaps inserted in different phases of a 3 Hz pulsating circle (visual-only condition), a 3 Hz frequency-modulated tone (auditory-only condition) and a cross-modal entrainment visual-auditory condition.

Accuracy in synchronizing under the visual-auditory condition was significantly higher than in the auditory-only condition. Both EEG and MEG at 3Hz (stimulation frequency) and 6Hz (harmonic) consistently showed auditory cortex activations during auditory-only condition and occipital activations during the visual-only condition. Most interestingly, MEG showed 3 Hz neural activation in auditory cortices during visual stimulation even in the absence of auditory stimuli (Figure 3). Taken together, these results provide clear evidence of neural entrainment in both visual and auditory modalities and that a cross-modal auditory-visual entrainment occurs at both behavioral and neural level.

Fig. 3


Source: Bauer et al. (2018)

What does all this mean?

The interest in the fascinating and universal phenomenon of entrainment has increased among researchers. Interestingly, entrainment appears to pave the way to prediction which is of great adaptive value because successes or failures in prediction are associated with significant psychological and physiological consequences (Clark, 2013; Merker, 2015). Particularly interesting is that auditory entrainment appears to be fundamental in language development (Pammer, 2014) and rhythmic entrainment constitutes the most distinctive musical behavior which is very rare in other species (Merker, 2015; Patel, 2014). Several clinical implications of rhythm entrainment also arise for clinical contexts as a relevant working ingredient of music therapy in the context of dyslexia, gait rehabilitation of stroke patients and other motor problems such as those found in Parkinson’s disease, autism, etc. (Pammer, 2014; Thaut et al., 2015).

The research presented by Ana proposes a novel and exciting approach to music psychology. We look forward to hearing her new discoveries in her post-doc studies.

Stella Sun, Kirsty Hawkins, Beatriz Matt Martin and Paulo Andrade.


Bauer, A. R., Bleichner, M. G.., Jaeger, M., Thorne, J. D., & Debener, S. (2018). Dynamic phase alignment of ongoing auditory cortex oscillations. Neuroimage, 167, 396-407

Calderone, D. J., Lakatos, P., Butler, P. D., & Castellanos, F. X. (2014). Entrainment of neural oscillations as a modifiable substrate of attention. Trends in cognitive sciences, 18(6), 300-309.

Clark, A. (2013). Whatever next? Predictive brains, situated agents, and the future of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(03), 181-204.

Clocks image: Retrieved on 24th December 2018.

Henry, M. J., & Obleser, J. (2012). Frequency modulation entrains slow neural oscillations and optimizes human listening behavior. PNAS, 109(49), 20095-20100.

Merker, B., Morley, I., & Zuidema, W. (2015). Five fundamental constraints on theories of the origins of music. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences370(1664), 20140095.

Pammer, K. (2014). Temporal sampling in vision and the implications for dyslexia. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 933.

Pikovsky, A., Rosenblum, M., & Kurths, J. (2003). Synchronization: A Universal Concept in Non-linear Sciences. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Thaut, M. H., McIntosh, G. C., & Hoemberg, V. (2015). Neurobiological foundations of neurologic music therapy: rhythmic entrainment and the motor system. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1185.

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Jacques Launay: Is Music an Evolutionary Adaptation for Social Bonding?

“Without a song or a dance what are we?

So I say thank you for the music

For giving it to me”

-Lyrics by ABBA-

Music and dance exists across all cultures and anthropological evidence makes it clear that musical instruments existed dating back almost 50,000 years. While we all know how meaningful music is in our lives, the existence of it is puzzling because bobbing our heads to the static beats of techno at a nightclub or singing carols together with the family on Christmas day doesn’t seem to directly benefit our survival. Dr Jacques Launay, who is a lecturer at Brunel University and teaches music psychology, presented a talk at Goldsmiths College about his belief that music exists as an adaptation for social bonding.

In his talk, Launay began by introducing some of the theories regarding the existence of music. One of which is Steven Pinker’s view, a cognitive psychologist, that music doesn’t have a purpose but is only a pleasure mechanism, an auditory drug, and a by-product of language (Pinker, 1997). However, knowing the power of music and what it acquires in us is unique, it’s difficult to agree that music is simply a pleasure technology. A popular theory that opposes Pinker is adaptationists’ view that music served a purpose in human evolution. Robin Dunbar (2003), who Launay worked with during his postdoctoral at Oxford University, suggests that for our ancestor tribes, music-making and dancing with other group members would have allowed the group to better socially bond and solve internal conflicts. As a result of these group benefits, the tribes would have grown stronger to outrun other competing tribes or protect against predator animals. Launay pointed out that a number of studies including his own support Dunbar’s theory, where it has been shown that playing or dancing to music as a group elicits social cohesion (Launay, Dean, & Bailes, 2013; Tarr, Launay, & Dunbar, 2014) and self-other likeability.

He continued by suggesting that several elements of music-making are socially bonding. These elements include low-level aspects of music-making, like shared intentionality (Reddish, Fischer, & Bulbulia, 2013), and shared task success (Launay, Dean, & Bailes, 2013). In fact, experimental evidence suggests that even just attending to the same stimulus as another person may be sufficient to encourage social bonding (Wolf, Launay, & Dunbar, 2016). In this experiment, two individuals engaged in a reaction time task. Launay explained that working from the same side of the screen with shared attention equated to higher ratings of social-bonding to their experiment partner. If participants worked individually, on different sides of the screen, the shared motivation test didn’t affect social-bonding (Wolf et al., 2016).

Launay next discussed the role of synchronisation in encouraging social bonding. When participants synchronise, they co-operate and bond socially more than when they are asynchronous (Hove & Risen, 2009; Reddish et al., 2013; Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). The effect of synchrony on bonding can even be seen when participants synchronise with a fake virtual partner, with higher ratings of likeability and trust after synchronising (Launay et al., 2013; Launay, Dean, & Bailes, 2014).

Perhaps more relevant to music-making, evidence suggests these effects are also found with dance. When dancing to either the same or different music (at differing tempos), participants dancing to the same music show enhanced memory for dancer attributes (Woolhouse, Tidhar, & Cross, 2016). This effect is not just an effect of exertion – Launay mentioned a paper he co-authored, where synchrony and exertion independently raised prosociability (Tarr, Launay, Cohen, & Dunbar, 2015). It is evident that dancing in synchrony, or at least dancing together in time, is linked with social bonding (Tarr, Launay, & Dunbar, 2016; von Zimmermann, Vicary, Sperling, Orgs, & Richardson, 2018)., 2018).

Additionally, Launay and colleagues conducted an experiment in Brazil, in which high school students were taught dance moves with varying levels of exertion. The students were then either instructed to dance in full or partial synchrony, depending upon visual and verbal cues given by the researchers. Results of the experiment showed an increase in pro-sociality ratings for both the fully synchronous and the partially synchronous groups (Tarr et al., 2015).

Also, music can affect social bonding over time. Launay explained a 6 month study that examined music and social bonding during three separate time periods, 2, 9, and 21 weeks (Pearce, Launay & Dunbar, 2015). The purpose of the study was to determine whether a singing class created social bonds more quickly than other activities such as crafts or creative writing. The results of the study support the theory that music is socially bonding, as after all three time periods, the musical classmates reported feeling significantly closer after the classes than they felt to them before.

One last experiment described by Launay aimed to determine whether the social bonding effects of music can be experienced on a larger scale. For this study, participants from a community choir that practiced and performed in both small groups, as well as a composite choir, provided self-report measures of social bonding before and after their small (20-80 members) and large-scale (all 232 members) rehearsal (Weinstein, Launay, Pearce, Dunbar & Stewart, 2015). The self-report scores of social bonding between participants went up in both conditions. The increased score for the large choir condition is particularly interesting, as choir members were singing with people they didn’t know, yet felt bonded to after a rehearsal and performance. This supports the hypothesis that the effects of music on social bonding can be also experienced on a larger scale.

PopChoir(Photo:, 2018).

Launay highlights experimental evidence suggesting that synchronisation can influence social bonding, which is seen to come from low-level aspects like shared attention, intentions and accomplishing a same goal. Other areas show that more exerted movements can also create more impact in social closeness, where likeability rises through dancing with bigger movements and when in synchrony; and is thought to be the most socially bonding (Tarr et al., 2015).

Some caveats for the adaptive purposes of music would be how music is used across cultures. A suggestion Launay makes is that music has evolved as a pre-linguistic form of communication as a primal way of bonding. This can still be seen, for example, through lullabies, in mother/infant relationships, where language isn’t as effective as music in communicating with each other, or in large groups such as festivals or silent discos (Tarr, Launay and Dunbar, 2016).

Musical preference influences people’s perception of how close they are to others and is a predictor of how much more likeable a person will be found based on their musical tastes (for example, if they have the same preference for music, they are more likely to think that they are going to connect better). Launay finishes his talk by saying how shared traits such as coming from the same area or having the same religion have been compared to analyse social bonding, but music is thought to hold a much bigger influence than any of these (Launay and Dunbar, 2015).

This insightful presentation demonstrates how powerful music is; it’s a tool that we use everyday of our lives to communicate with others throughout many cultures across the world. Music really is a unique and adaptive invention that cements our togetherness, allowing us to share moments and build relationships with others.

Quotefancy-2399244-3840x2160(Photo:, 2018).

Harin Lee, Dianna Vidas, Heather Thueringer and Kerry Schofield.


Hove, M. J., & Risen, J. L. (2009). It’s All in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation. Social Cognition, 27(6), 949–960.

Launay, J., Dean, R. T., & Bailes, F. (2013). Synchronization can influence trust following virtual interaction. Experimental Psychology, 60(1), 53–63.

Launay, J., Dean, R. T., & Bailes, F. (2013). Synchronization can influence trust following virtual interaction. Experimental Psychology, 60(1), 53–63.

Launay, J., Dean, R. T., & Bailes, F. (2014). Synchronising movements with the sounds of a virtual partner enhances partner likeability. Cognitive Processing, 15(4), 491–501.

Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2015). Playing with Strangers: Which Shared Traits Attract Us Most to New People? PLoS ONE, 10(6), e0129688.

Pearce, E., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. (2015). The ice-breaker effect: singing mediates fast social bonding. Royal Society Open Science, 2(10), 150221. doi:10.1098/rsos.150221

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York, NY: Norton.

Popchoir. (2018). [photograph ]. Retrieved from

Quotefancy. (2018). [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Reddish, P., Fischer, R., & Bulbulia, J. (2013). Let’s Dance Together: Synchrony, Shared Intentionality and Cooperation. PLoS ONE, 8(8).

Silentdisco. (2018). [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Tarr, B., Launay, J., Cohen, E., & Dunbar, R. (2015). Synchrony and exertion during dance independently raise pain threshold and encourage social bonding. Biology Letters 11, 20150767.

Tarr, B., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2016). Silent disco: dancing in synchrony leads to elevated pain thresholds and social closeness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(5), 343–349.

von Zimmermann, J., Vicary, S., Sperling, M., Orgs, G., & Richardson, D. C. (2018). The Choreography of Group Affiliation. Topics in Cognitive Science, 10, 80–94.

Weinstein, D., Launay, J., Pearce, E., Dunbar, R. I., & Stewart, L. (2016). Singing and social bonding: changes in connectivity and pain threshold as a function of group size. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(2), 152-158. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.10.002

Wiltermuth, S. S., & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and Cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1–5.

Wolf, W., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2016). Joint attention, shared goals, and social bonding. British Journal of Psychology, 107(2), 322–337.

Woolhouse, M. H., Tidhar, D., & Cross, I. (2016). Effects on Inter-Personal Memory of Dancing in Time with Others. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(February), 1–8. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00167

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The Jazz Turnaround: A Back-to-Back Paradigm for Studying Improvisation

Musical improvisation involves extremely complex cognitive processes—with performers engaging in rapid, in-the-moment decision-making coupled with focussed motor attention, all-the-while maintaining awareness of the other musicians and the music. It’s no wonder that it captivates the interest of Dr Freya Bailes, a music researcher at the University of Leeds, who presented a talk on the cognitive mechanisms involved in improvisation at Goldsmiths College on the 1st of February 2018.

Who’s leading who?

One aspect of improvisation that may not automatically spring to mind is leadership. Traditionally, within certain types of improvisation such as jazz music, leadership may arise from a conductor or more likely, the lead-player within the ensemble. These individuals show where the music is going (rhythmically, harmonically, and dynamically) through subtle changes in their playing and (often fantastically cryptic!) gestures and visual cues. But how does leadership occur for two people improvising freely?

This was one of the core focuses for Bailes and Dean in a recent study investigating cognitive processes in improvisation. The researchers paired professional pianists, instructing them to perform six, three-minute improvisations. However, there was a catch! The performers had to play back-to-back at separate MIDI pianos, rendering them unable to use visual cues while improvising—Bailes wanted exchange of auditory information only.

UntitledBack-to-back pianists—the set-up used in Bailes’ experiment. (Source)

Limited directions for the format of the six improvisations were given. Two of the improvisations were labelled as completely free, one had a dynamic structure (quiet, loud, quiet), one was to be centred around a pulse, one was instructed to be led by Performer 1, and the last was to be led by Performer 2. The researchers were interested in how responses to each other’s playing would influence the development of leadership roles between the two performers. In addition, they were curious to discover the performers’ perceived leadership roles, i.e. who each performer believed was leading the improvisation at different points in the piece. Thirty minutes after performing, the performers listened back to their improvisations and rated who they felt influenced the music most in each section. They found that aural cues alone were sufficient for performers to identify who was taking the lead.

Sweat for science

Bailes and Dean aimed to probe both conscious and unconscious measures of the performers’ experiences. Therefore, in addition to the conscious measure (leadership rating), they employed an unconscious measure by recording the physiological arousal of performers while improvising. Arousal is considered a component of the emotional response triggered by listening to music (Khalfa et al. 2002; Rickard, 2004). They measured arousal by recording changes in skin conductance (SC)—a type of electrodermal activity caused by variations in the sweat glands, controlled unconsciously by the sympathetic nervous system (Khalfa, Isabelle, Jean-Pierre, & Manon, 2002).

Untitled.png SC.pngSkin conductance (SC) is captured via skin electrodes placed on the fingertips or, when confronted with jazz pianists, on the left ankle. (Source)

SC is often measured on the fingertips—a bit problematic for pianists! Instead, Bailes and Dean measured SC on the pianist’s left ankle, as the performers were able to keep that part of their body still (the right ankle was left free for pedalling). Interestingly, it was previously hypothesised that SC might increase more during transitions in the improvisations, as those points in the music require increased attention and effort to develop a new pattern in the music (Dean & Bailes, 2016). An analysis of a case study for one duo found that SC typically did increase during transitions, e.g. when a new dynamic section began. One player’s SC matched the musical structure of the improvisations, while the other player had an overall greater variability in SC but did not always follow the shape of the music. In general, improvisation could intensify a performer’s arousal state by focussing attention on the moment-by-moment decision making, and awareness and reaction to the other performers’ actions. That’s a lot to think about at once!

How about you, the audience?

In addition to obtaining leadership perception from the performers, Bailes also investigated listeners’ (specifically non-musicians) perceptions on the leadership roles during the improvisation. It seems that Bailes enjoys tackling difficult topics as she herself described ‘perception of leadership in improvisation’ as an impossible task for non-musicians! It was the researchers’ turn to improvise, as they devised an alternative approach—to ask an open question to the non-musician listeners: “Indicate where any significant changes in sound occur within the improvised piece of music”. The piece they listened to was taken directly from the recordings of the professional musicians used for their study on leadership roles (Dean & Bailes, 2016). The questions asked were left deliberately open to interpretation as they didn’t want to bias any perceptions. Participants were asked to listen to the piece at a computer and move the mouse to indicate change. Large changes in music were to be indicated by faster mouse movements, and smaller changes by slower movements.

In addition to this, non-musicians were asked to report the level of perceived arousal expressed during the piece of music. By moving the mouse along a scale (moving up the scale = higher arousal), participants mapped out the level of arousal over the time-course of the music. Here, the team were interested in whether outside-listeners were sensitive to the physiological arousal of the performers. By comparing the outside-listeners’ perceived arousal with the SC of the performers over the time course of the music, Bailes and Dean were able to analyse the data for any correlations that may support their hypotheses.

Bailes and Dean developed a couple of interesting hypotheses concerning outside-listeners. Firstly, they predicted the perceptions of the outside-listeners would align with the performers’ perceptions of changed leadership, however, this was not the case. Instead, the case study analysis of one duo revealed that the listeners’ perception of changes in sound aligned with the computational segmentation of each pianist’s performed key velocity. Their second hypothesis was that the outside-listeners’ perception of arousal would align with the performers’ level of physiological arousal, as measured by their SC level, over the time-course of the music. Interestingly, a mixed result was found regarding their second hypothesis. In the same case study, Performer 2’s skin conductance correlated with the listeners perceptions of arousal, and yet in the same piece of music, performer one’s skin conductance did not align with the listeners perceptions. Bailes suggests that perhaps individual differences in SC (Performer 1 was more prone to sweating!) may have weakened the link between perceptions and physiological measures of arousal.

Untitled.png arousalDiagram illustrating the levels of arousal measured in the experiment (Bailes, 2018)

The research presented by Bailes and Dean display some interesting details. Their research looked at a range of intriguing questions regarding improvisation, from leadership roles to arousal and the interactions between performers’ perception and physiological changes and non-musician’s perceptions. Bailes and Dean’s research suggests that when two performers are playing together, aural cues alone are enough to allow performers to agree on who was leading the music at any given point. However, their case study also found no evidence to support some of the hypotheses proposed, potentially highlighting the intricacy of investigating such concepts. It seems that when you’re fascinated by researching impossible tasks, you can’t always expect straightforward results—but that’s all part of the fun.

Nicholas Feasey, Taylor Liptak, and Alex Lascelles


Bailes, F. (2018). Cognitive processes in improvisation [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from

Dean, R. T., & Bailes, F. (2016). Relationships between generated musical structure, performers’ physiological arousal and listener perceptions in solo piano improvisation. Journal of New Music Research, 45(4), 361-374.

Khalfa, S., Isabelle, P., Jean-Pierre, B., & Manon, R. (2002). Event-related skin conductance responses to musical emotions in humans. Neuroscience letters, 328(2), 145-149.

Rickard, N. S. (2004). Intense emotional responses to music: a test of the physiological arousal hypothesis. Psychology of music, 32(4), 371-388.

Rowe, M. (2011, May 13). Jazz Code. [Web log post]. Retrieved January 20, 2018, from


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“The seductiveness of music lies in its ability to titillate the senses”: Elaine Chew on musical structure

Think about the last time a piece of music took you by surprise… What triggered it? How did you feel? Did others react the same way? You might become aware of musical structure through an established rhythmic pattern or a subverted harmonic expectation. It exists at various levels within a piece of music, from short motifs, through to longer patterns.

Structure is an integral music component and indeed, music is often described as  “organised sound” (Varèse, cited in Goldman, 1961). Composers conceive and organise structure, performers express it, and listeners decipher it. Differences in our perception of these structures will dictate our expectation of the forthcoming music and alter our individual experiences of music.

So how can we make sense of our musical experiences by analysing and quantifying structure? Elaine Chew is a self-described “mathemusical scientist” (Chew, 2016, p. 37). Her research on musical structure spans conceptual art through to mathematical modelling and gives new insights into music perception. She spoke to Goldsmiths’ Music, Mind, and Brain MSc students about the perception and apperception of musical structure.

“When practise becomes performance”
(Chew & Child, 2014)
Sight reading as a means of structural insight

The process of sight-reading requires an array of neurological and motor functions, including “perception (de-coding note patterns), kinesthetics (executing motor programs), memory (recognising patterns) and problem-solving skills (improvising and guessing)” (Parncutt & McPhereson, 2002, p. 78). This reliance on pattern decoding means that sight-reading could provide insight into a performer’s initial comprehension of musical structure.

Pic 1

Source: Chew, 2013 (click for enlarged image)

Prior to the nineteenth century, public performances of music usually consisted of scores being performed at first sight, without practice (Parncutt & McPhereson, 2002). Nowadays, music is usually painstakingly rehearsed beforehand. In 2013, Elaine Chew worked with composer Peter Child and conceptual artist Lina Viste Grønli to challenge our expectations of performance. After a visit to the Berlin Philharmonic, Viste Grønli found her thoughts fixated on the musicians’ warming-up “performance” and began questioning how these chaotic, unplanned sounds could be captured. What followed was Practising Haydn. Chew was recorded practising Haydn’s Piano Sonota in E Flat, and the session was then meticulously transcribed to create a new score and publicly performed.

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Source: Chew, 2013

The transcribed practise session and its comparison to Haydn’s original score leaves a fascinating trace of the cognitive processing of musical structure. Childs’ score is full of metrical changes, repetitions, pauses, and interruptions – quite unlike anything you’d expect in a piece of Haydn’s music. These alterations mark structural points at which musical patterns and expectations are subverted. And this process is an example of one type of conceptual analysis into structure through the composer/performer relationship.

“How music works, why music works and […] how to make music work”
(Chew, 2016, p 38)
Modelling musical structure and expectancy

In order to better understand the processes that leads the composer and listener to create and perceive musical boundaries, it is important to develop mathematical models of music cognition that describe variations of musical expectancy and tension (Huron, 2006). Tension can be induced by both tonal and temporal patterns. Also, the musical properties that comprise such patterns are multidimensional and dynamic (Herremans & Chew, 2016), which means they can be difficult to model accurately.

Chew argues that important parallels can be drawn between our understanding of the physical world and our experience of musical structure (Chew, 2016). As she explains, people can imagine and describe forms of physical movement with ease: What does it feel like to march in a muddy swamp? How vividly can you remember your first time accelerating down a ski slope or on a rollercoaster? Can you picture the swooping sensation of a falcon changing its course in flight? For most people, these thought experiments are intuitive. Composers can, therefore, draw from our common knowledge of the physical world to design equally vivid musical gestures.

More importantly, concepts from physics can constitute a reliable framework to describe musical structure. In the same way that physicists use mathematics to model physical phenomena, mathemusical scientists can describe the musical world in mathematical terms. They can use mathematical modelling techniques from physics to develop more accurate mathematical models of music perception: Chew uses the concept of gravity and the properties of Newtonian mechanics to model the dynamics of tonal tension and the effect of musical pulse on expectancy.

The spiral array model of tonality is a geometric representation of tonal space, which represents pitch classes, chords and keys, where each pitch class corresponds to spatial coordinates along a helix.

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Source: Chew, 2016, p 44

Newton’s law of gravitation allows us to localise the centre of gravity of a non-uniform object by integrating the weight of all the points in that object. Accordingly, the gravitational pull is concentrated at the center of gravity of a given object and the gravitational force between two objects is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between these objects. In mathematical terms, we have:

Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 15.51.21

Likewise, the tonic is the centre of gravity of the given tonal context – also defined as the “center of effect”. As the tonic changes within the modulations of the harmonic structure, the centre of effect will change accordingly. Tones that are harmonically distant from the centre of effect induce tension, and tones that are closer to it allow for resolution. However, tonal tension that is distant from the centre of effect is less like gravity and more like an elastic force, which was also defined by Newton. Hence, tones moving apart and towards the tonal centre in time create a musical narrative (see Herremans’ and Chew’s paper on tension ribbons for more information).

Tonality is not the only parameter that shapes our experience of musical tension. Through her Expression Synthesis Project (Chew et al., 2005), Chew also illustrates how timing and beat can affect expectancy, and how this can be modelled according to Newtonian mechanics. The pull is dictated by the musical pulse, and Newton’s three laws of motion are used to operationalise timing, where the time elapsed between two beats are analogous to the distance between two points in space (Chew, 2016).

Chew’s work on the mathematical modelling of musical structure allowed her and her colleague Alexandre Francois to develop MuSA.RT software, which can analyse the tonal structure of a given musical piece and provide a corresponding graphical representation using the spiral array model. In this video, Chew demonstrates how the software responds to musical information:

Another exciting application of Chew’s work is its potential for artificial music composition. MorpheuS is an automatic music generation system developed by Chew and her colleague Dorien Herremans which uses machine-learning techniques and pattern detection algorithms in conjunction with Chew’s tonal tension model to produce novel music in a specific style or in the combination of several styles. For instance, below is a recording of three pieces morphed from A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena by J. S. Bach and three pieces morphed from 30 and 24 Pieces for Children by Kabalevsky.

“Listening as a creative act”
(Smith, Schankler & Chew, 2014)
Individual differences in structure perception

Whilst music perception and cognition can be tracked to a certain extent, Chew emphasises our individual differences. Musical structure arises from parameters on different layers, which give the listener enough space for interpretation. Attention seems to play a crucial role in shaping perception and untangling ambiguities, which is in turn influenced by the personal listening history and expectations (Smith et al., 2014a). As music listening and making require the integration of diverse musical parameters (Herremans & Chew, 2016), researchers’ predictions of personal experience are limited by diverging musical features we deem relevant.

Perception of musical boundaries, for example, is predictable from novelty peaks, which capture the extent to which different musical features change over time (Smith et al., 2014b). Timbre, harmony, key, rhythm or tempo might be decisive. And again, boundary and novelty annotations by listeners reveal individual deviances across those musical parameters. Therefore, not every novelty peak makes us perceive a structural boundary, as personal attention obscures physical events. Some theories of structure perception such as Lerdahl & Jackendoff’s (1983) Generative Theory of Tonal Music, ascribe gestalt rules to the process, but research suggests that our perceptions vary from person to person (Smith et al., 2014a). When repeatedly exposed to the same musical piece, people even disagree with themselves about structure (Margulis, 2012)!

Structure is often ambiguous – particularly in improvised music – so it’s important to remember that our perception is flexible. In Practising Haydn the transcription process was open to interpretation – how and why did the composer decide which changes warranted formal transcription? This ambiguity of structural boundaries is likely due to the multidimensional complexity of musical patterns and the aggregate nature of the perceptual process.

These projects emphasise the creative nature of listening, the breadth of Chew’s work, and the important role that structure plays in our understanding of music perception and cognition in general. Next time you’re listening to that exciting piece of music, take a minute to remember how complex and unique your experience may be.

Lena Esther Ptasczynski, Fran Board, and Paul Bejjani

Chew, E., François, A., Liu, J., Yang, A. (2005). ESP: A Driving Interface for Expression Synthesis. Proceedings of the 2005 International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME05), Vancouver, BC, Canada, 224-227.
Chew, E. (2013). About practising Haydn. Retrieved January 31, 2018, from
Chew, E., & Child, P. (2014). Multiple Sense Making: When Practice Becomes Performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.
Chew, E. (2016). Motion and gravitation in the musical spheres (in Mathemusical Conversations: Mathematics and Computation in Music Performance and Composition). (J. Smith, E. Chew, & G. Assayag, Eds.). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Company.
Goldman, R. F. (1961). Varèse: Ionisation; Density 21.5; Intégrales; Octandre; Hyperprism; Poème Electronique. Instrumentalists, cond. Musical Quarterly, 47(133–134), Robert Craft. Columbia MS 6146 (stereo).
Herremans, D., & Chew, E. (2016). Tension ribbons: Quantifying and visualising tonal tension. Second International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation and Representation, 8–18.
Huron, D. (2006). Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. MIT Press.
Lerdahl, F., & Jackendoff, J. (1983). Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Margulis, E. H. (2012). Musical Repetition Detection Across Multiple Exposures. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29(4), 377–385.
Parncutt, R., & McPherson, G. E. (2002). The Science and Psychology of Music Performance Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning. Research Studies in Music Education, 19(1), 78–78.
Smith, J., Shankler, I., & Chew, E. (2014a). Listening as a Creative Act: Meaningful Differences in Structural Annotations of Improvised Performances. Society for Music Theory, 20(3).
Smith, J., Chuan, C.-H., Chew, Chew, E. (2014b). Audio properties of perceived boundaries in music. IEEE Transactions on Multimedia. Special Issue on Music Data Mining, 16(5), 1219-1228.
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Step in time: Musical ensemble coordination in cross-cultural settings

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“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal”; an eloquent start to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, but also an apt summary of a model too often assumed in modern psychology research. Generalised claims regarding human behaviour are based almost exclusively on studies sampling WEIRD societies – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies.


Figure 1. Participant demographics from meta-analysis. Source: Jakubowski, 2016

During her talk entitled “Musical ensemble coordination in ecological and cross-cultural settings” at Goldsmiths, University of London, Dr Kelly Jakubowski introduces the demographic breakdown of participants from a selection of 97 studies on the effects of background music. She describes that 37% of the studies use a sample of “undergraduate students” and 29% of the studies use a sample of “university students”, totalling more than 60% of the sample pool being drawn from higher education establishments, as shown in Figure 1. From her selection, studies relating to music and synchrony (the field in which Dr Jakubowski is currently conducting her research) make bold claims such as ‘In a world rife with isolation, the aligned representations in interpersonal synchrony may provide a means for togetherness and connection.’, (Hove & Risen, 2009). But with participants sampled from such a narrow demographic, how can such claims be substantiated across societies and cultures?

Dr Jakubowski, along with colleagues at Durham university, is researching Interpersonal Entrainment in Music Performance (IEMP), which explores how people coordinate movements in time to perform music together. From a Western classical symphony orchestra to a South Indian carnatic music ensemble, all musicians utilise interpersonal entrainment (the timing coordination between individuals) to create a cohesive musical performance. However, different patterns of coordination and levels of synchrony are used across cultures and musical styles. How levels of asynchrony in musical performance affects aesthetic judgement is a topic of debate. Ethnomusicologist Charles Keil argues that for music to be meaningful and involving for listeners, it must be “out of time” and “out of tune” (a phenomenon he describes as “participatory discrepancy”), perhaps because this suggests a relatable element of human error. However, this view is contested by perceptual studies (e.g. Senn et al., 2016) which show that participants actually preferred as much synchrony as possible in musical performance.

The team at Durham University are currently studying both audio and visual coordination in musical performance across cultures, including Indian classical music, Malian Djembe, jazz, Tunisian Stambeli, and Cuban dance music. The research into audio coordination involves studying synchronicity of instruments using sound onset detection. In addition to this, their phase relationship in measured, indicating which instrument leads or follows another. An interesting finding is that the variability of asynchrony between a drummed instrument and plucked instrument (such as a guitar) decreases as the note density increases, i.e. the faster the music, the more out of sync the instruments. This in contrast to asynchrony between two drummed instruments, which remains constant regardless of the speed of the music.



Figure 2. Validation study comparing Video and Motion Capture Data. Source: Jakubowski et al., 2017

Ancillary movements are those made by performers which are not directly related to sound production. These movements are critical to musical ensemble coordination, and are the focus of the visual research by the team at Durham. Sound-producing movements occur over a timescale of milliseconds, and so can only be captured by specialist Motion Capture systems which have a temporal resolution of 120 – 160 frames per second. Ancillary movements, on the other hand, occur over a much longer timescale of seconds, such that standard video recording (with a frame rate of 25 – 30 fps) can be used to record these. Current motion capture systems deliver high definition data, but are most often constrained to a laboratory environment, due to the nature of the fixed camera sensors required for data collection. These systems are not particularly useful for field work where conditions are rarely under the researcher’s full control, and data must usually be collected promptly in an occasionally less than ideal situation. The miniaturisation of camera sensors over the last 10 years has allowed researchers to work in the field and collect high quality video footage, in this case of ensembles performing together, and bring this back to the lab for analysis. One might imagine that for movement tracking, data from a Motion Capture system would far outperform that from a standard video extraction. However, a validation study conducted by Dr Jakubowski’s team (as shown in Figure 2) reported high correlations of .75 to .94 between the output of the two systems, suggesting that data extracted from video field recordings can be used to accurately track these ancillary movements.

During this validation study, the team analysed movement data from a collection of 30 videos of duos improvising in a controlled environment, and extracted an aggregate measure (the Cross-wavelet Transform) which is related to periods of peak movement between the two performers. They then compared this with a panel of expert musicians’ indications of visual interaction between the performers in the videos, aiming to validate this measure as a quantitative predictor of the experts’ qualitative indications. 72% of the periods of interaction could be predicted using just this CWT measure, a result which increased to over 90% when more specific frequency bands were added. With this new quantitative predictor, Jakubowski and colleagues were able to collect field video recordings from other cultures and perform movement tracking and analysis, to compare how patterns of movement coordination emerge as a function of other performance attributes (such as musical style, structure, metre, and performer hierarchy).

The second area of research for the IEMP team is synchrony and entrainment perception by listeners. Humans are able to distinguish the onset of two sounds as distinct with a separation as short as just 2 milliseconds. For the listener to correctly identify which sound preceded the other, a minimum separation of 15 – 20 milliseconds is required. This latter judgement can however be affected by a common perceptual bias related to cultural instrumental hierarchy and roles, such as the assumption that a melody instrument will “lead” before an accompanying one. The IEMP team are looking into factors which affect this asynchrony perception, as it is an important part of a listener’s evaluation of performance quality and engagement. In one study, participants were exposed to audio visual recordings of improvising duos and asked to rate the synchrony of the performers (how “together” they felt the performance was). Their results show that clips which the participants rated as high in synchrony had high spectral flux (a measure of number of events in time, or ‘complexity’) in low-frequency sub-bands, a quality generally related to ratings of rhythmic strength and musical groove.

A cross culture field study was undertaken by the team, to investigate aesthetic judgement and discrimination of temporally adjusted recordings of Western jazz, Malian djembe and Uruguayan candombe music. This found a perhaps unsurprising preference across cultures for asynchrony minimisation. Interestingly however, participants in the UK listening to Malian djembe music (which is naturally non-isochronous) preferred an isochronous variant, whereas Malians preferred the non-isochronous original, and were able to better discriminate between micro adjustment of metric subdivision in their own music than music from other societies. This is perhaps because this non-isochronous rhythm is more culturally engrained than in other participants.

Though Dr Jakubowski’s work is ongoing, preliminary results clearly indicate that across cultures and societies, people’s perceptions and preference for musical features are not uniform. Differences in asynchrony and entrainment have no doubt contributed to the plethora of distinct musical styles which have developed around the world. Establishing awareness about these differences in perception is an important step towards addressing them in wider research. This in turn may help us better understand the variations that are being observed, in terms of where and how they may arise.


Frederick Taylor



Burger, B., Ahokas, R., Keipi, A., & Toiviainen, P. (2013). Relationships between spectral flux, perceived rhythmic strength, and the propensity to move. In R. Bresin (Ed.), Proceedings of the Sound and Music Computing Conference 2013, SMC 2013, Stockholm, Sweden (pp. 179-184). Berlin: Logos Verlag Berlin. Retrieved from

Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

Hirsh, I. J. (1959). Auditory perception of temporal order. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 31(6), 759-767. doi:10.1121/1.1907782

Jakubowski, K. (2016, September 30). How Weird is music psychology? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Jakubowski, K., Eerola, T., Alborno, P., Volpe, G., Camurri, A., & Clayton, M. (2017). Extracting Coarse Body Movements from Video in Music Performance: A Comparison of Automated Computer Vision Techniques with Motion Capture Data. Frontiers in Digital Humanities, 4(9). doi:10.3389/fdigh.2017.00009

Keil, C. (1987). Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music. Cultural Anthropology, 2, 275–283. doi:10.1525/can.1987.2.3.02a00010

Hove, M. J., & Risen J. L. (2009). It’s All in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation. Social Cognition, 27(6), 949-960. doi:10.1521/soco.2009.27.6.949

Senn, O., Kilchenmann, L., von Georgi, R., & Bullerjahn, C. (2016). The Effect of Expert Performance Microtiming on Listeners’ Experience of Groove in Swing or Funk Music. Frontiers in Psychology7, 1487. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01487

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‘Dynamite in my ears’ – The Exceptional Musicality of some Individuals with Autism

Can people who struggle with speech be exceptional musicians? What does this have to do with autism? Professor Adam Ockelford, Director of the Applied Music Research Centre at the Roehampton University in London provided explanations to these questions in his talk at Goldsmiths University of London in November 2017.

Firstly, let’s define autism. As Prof. Ockelford proposed, imagine listening to the radio in an unfamiliar language that you cannot turn off. Imagine seeing through a stained-glass window, broken and glued together again in a random way. Autism is a developmental spectrum condition, influencing how people perceive the world and communicate with others. It affects approximately 1/100 children in the UK (The National Autistic Society, 2017). Children with so-called ‘classic’ autism often have little or even no speech. In ‘Asperger’ Syndrome language is not affected. People with autism have fragmentary perception (e.g., the stained glass), and seem to pay more attention to details than to the whole. The drawings of Stephen Wiltshire re-create highly detailed landscapes. Remarkably, rather than first sketching an outline, Stephen makes his way from one end of the canvas to the other in painstaking detail.


(Wiltshire, 2016)

Autistic people have a love for pattern and predictability. In that sense, it becomes easy to see why these individuals may have social and communication deficits: after all, humans are nothing if not unpredictable. Furthermore, Prof. Ockelford explained how these individuals have difficulty understanding the emotions of others (cf. ‘Theory of Mind’), which makes socialising a huge challenge.


Prof. Ockelford (2013) suggests that the developmental trajectories of music and language, which generally evolve together, can possibly diverge in some children on the autism spectrum, causing a delay in language understanding and use. These behavioural differences make autistic children perceive the world in more perceptual and musical ways; for example an early fascination with everyday sounds and objects (e.g. a microwave). It is interesting to note that such sounds are musical, producing pitches, tones and comprising different colours and harmonics (Ockelford, 2013). This is, as suggested by Prof. Ockelford (2013), one of the outcomes of an Exceptional Early Cognitive Environment. In other words, certain sounds do not acquire wider meaning or functional significance, but are instead processed purely in terms of their sonic qualities – in musical terms.

This strong and early detail-oriented connection with music may be the reason why such a large number of children on the autism spectrum possess absolute pitch: 1 in 20 within the autistic population compared with 1 in 10,000 in the western societies. As defined by Takeuchi and Hulse (1993), absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify or produce a pure tone at a particular pitch, without the use of an external reference pitch (e.g. piano).

Prof. Ockelford observes that the ability to recognise and sing a tone (in autism AP cases), generally comes before any theoretical aspects of music (naming notes, scales, etc.), and can be independent of language. A video was shown in which Freddie, an autistic student aged 10 at that time, was asked to reproduce a small melody on the piano. Surprisingly, instead of playing the notes on the piano, he sang them, barely brushing the piano keys. The music seemed to have sounded in his head, negating the need for him to actually play the instrument. As Prof. Ockelford reminds us “The vivid nature of perception – crucial for our functioning and survival – beguiles us into thinking that music exists beyond ourselves in a material way.” (Ockelford, 2017, p. 61).



Prof. Ockelford’s latest book Comparing Notes (2017) is an excellent resource for understanding the history of his work. It’s extremely well researched, and discusses many aspects of how we (both on and off the spectrum) derive meaning from the fuzziness that is music. Through his work with Derek Paravicini, diagnosed as having ‘classical’ autism, he discovered that Derek’s process of imitation led to agency, to musical structure, to music making sense. Derek is acclaimed as one of the greatest musical ‘savants’ ever to have lived. You can watch the amazing Ted talk featuring both Prof. Ockelford and Derek here:

Prof. Ockelford commented that music cannot be cynical. It is innocent, a pure method of communication, which is thought to far precede the language we use today. The children he works with are always fun, excited and still hit the ceiling with pleasure when much loved chords and phrases are presented to them time and time again. Classical musicians alike visit and spend time playing with the Professor’s students. This includes MSc Music, Mind and Brain students whom he encourages to get in touch and participate. Blowing the cobwebs off their perhaps grey palettes, which after years of playing in familiar circles, could greatly benefit from the addition of fresh and brighter colour.

A collaboration of this nature was alluded to in the talk with a young girl named Romy. A lover of Bach, music is Romy’s language of communication and her humorous character was conveyed through purposefully playing the ‘wrong notes’ to avoid interaction with early piano teachers. In this way, music becomes a proxy language for children and adults on the autism spectrum. Children like Romy are extremely musically advanced, having the ability to transpose mid-piece and, in Romy’s case, communicate her disapproval through playing notes in the most opposed tonality to the original key. The shift in pattern allows Romy to portray her colourful personality in the most complex way that is astounding to most advanced musicians.



So what were Prof. Ockelford’s concluding thoughts? The fundamental idea is that through the repetition of words and sounds from our surrounding environment, both language and everyday sounds can be processed as music. The early cognitive environment of a child on the autistic spectrum is a complex one, however it is our responsibility to understand the message these remarkable individuals convey, not vice versa!

Catherine Smyth, Luca Kiss, Patrick Reis, & Simon Andrew Whitton


The National Autistic Society (2017). Autism. Retrieved from

Wiltshire, S. (2016). Cologne, Germany. Retrieved 18th November 2017 from:

Ockelford, A. (2013). Music, language and autism. 1st ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 211-215.

Ockelford, A. (2017). Comparing Notes : How we make sense of music. Profile Books LTD: London
Takeuchi, A. H., & Hulse, S. H. (1993). Absolute pitch. Psychological Bulletin, 113(2), 345-361.

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