Courtesy Dave Govoni (Va bene!)Is birdsong music? Does the tweeting and chirping of our feathered friends elicit the same emotional response in them as one of Chopin’s nocturnes does in us? Do they serve the same purpose? These are questions that have long been argued in scientific circles and elsewhere.
A new study published recently in Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience shows some interesting results in how birds perceive birdsong.
Researcher Sarah Earp and neuroscientist Donna Maney, both of Emory University looked at brain imaging data gathered from studies of human neural responses to music and compared them with similar data from birdsong studies.
Some of the white-throated sparrows were given a boost of hormones (testosterone and estradiol) that made them all a-twitter and ready for love. When a male sparrow stepped up to the microphone and started serenading, the females showed a definite response.
“We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like,” said Sarah Earp.
But what was music to the ears of the female sparrows was perceived by their male counterparts as discordant (and probably very annoying) noise from a rival suitor. An awkward third-wheel sort of deal, I suppose.
“Birdsong is a signal,” said Maney. “And the definition of a signal is that it elicits a response in the receiver. Previous studies hadn’t approached the question from that angle, and it’s an important one.”
The females in the sample group showed increased activity in the same region of their bird brains that humans display in their corresponding region when hearing a piece of music they enjoy. The response of the control group females - those not in a breeding state and without any hormonal boost - showed little response to song. Male sparrows treated with testosterone showed an amygdala response not unlike how the human brain responds to scary movie music.*
The brain’s mesolimbic reward pathway has counterparts in both humans and birds. In humans it lies beneath the cerebrum and is involved in emotions, memory, and olfaction. A neurotransmitter called dopamine is produced within the brain’s limbic system and spreads along the limbic pathways to help regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. The chemical messenger also governs movement and emotions.
The study shows that not only does birdsong and music produce similar responses in corresponding brain regions linked to reward but also in areas thought to regulate emotions. And the response also seems to connected to social context in both birds and humans.
“Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion,” Earp said. “That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival.”
*Rather than scary, I find composer Bernard Herrmann’s musical score used in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO very compelling – not sure what that response means. But it’s interesting to note that Herrmann’s music in the movie was also a big influence on record producer George Martin’s string arrangement for the Beatles’ melancholy ballad ELEANOR RIGBY.
The title is a quote by electronic music composer Edgard Varèse. It is a quote that I recently took to heart as a composer myself. Unfortunately, I am typically separated from the science field, as I focus on my musical endeavors. In an effort to rectify this, I have recently begun a series of audiovisual works that marry the two fields. This blog seems like the perfect environment to showcase my work to date.
The piece I am advocating for here is called Ferrous, which showcases the unique properties of ferrofluid. This liquid contains microscopic magnetic particles, which will react to any external magnetic field. By introducing a magnet, we can see the fluid take the shape of the magnetic field lines emanating from that magnet. In this piece, all of the magnets are manipulated below the ferrofluid, but their shape and movement remains clear as the liquid mimics them. I used four different magnets of varying shapes and strengths to showcase the liquid’s wide range of visual possibilities. The visuals are further enhanced by the brilliant gold colors that reflect off of the ferrofluid-stained aluminum foil container.
All of the audio is derived from two sources that embody the materials used in the piece. One was sloshing liquid, which represents the fluid aspects of ferrofluid; the other was metal banging on metal, which represents the solid aspects (i.e. when the magnets are interacting with the iron in the ferrofluid). These sounds are then filtered in many different ways (i.e. delay, pitch shift, distortion, time expansion and compression, etc.) to create the final score. I gave each magnet their own musical character by designating particular filters for each one. For example, the bar magnets in the middle of the piece use a lot of quick pitch shifting to underscore the variety of visual effects they can create, while the round magnet at the end makes great use of delay as a driving rhythmic force, as well as distortion to underscore its sheer magnetic power.
Working on this project has been an amazing experience for me so far. Science is just full of so much inherent beauty and I already have a few ideas for other videos like this in the near future. I would love to hear your responses to this video and any thoughts for this project going forward. But for now, enjoy!
If the term "sample" reminds you more of a cheese tasting than music making, this video is for you. DJ, music producer and clothing designer Aaron LaCrate walks us through Sampling 101--taking a snippet of a song and repurposing it in another work. LaCrate explains the process but doesn't sample in his own music -- to "clear" a lifted beat for use is complicated, and expensive.
Courtesy Mark RyanAccording to a new study reported in Discovery magazine, over the past 20,000 years, the human brain has been shrinking in size. Whether this is good or bad in terms of evolution or intelligence is another question. But whatever the case, as musician/surgeon Charles Limb shows in a recent TED Talk, the way the brain functions continues to amaze us.
I'm sure there's a lot of jokes I could make about stereotypical tensions between nerds and jocks, but there's science to be had at the World Cup, and I'm never one to back down from an exercise in applied physics.
If you've been watching any of the matches on TV or have any friends that are, you may have heard about the controversy centered around a popular fan item - the vuvuzela. Vuvuzelas are plastic trumpets used by soccer fans in South Africa to cheer on their team and goad the opponents. When blown, they can achieve decibel levels upwards of close to 130 dB. That's as loud as a loud rock concert or a jet at take off.
It's gotten to the point that referees and coaches want the horns banned, and fans at home are complaining that the noise is drowning out network commentary.
Now for the science. Editors at the German blog Surfpoeten have pointed out that because the horn has a simple acoustic fingerprint (tones at 233, 466, 932, and 1864 Hz), very basic filtering software can remove the vuvuzeula drone from broadcast media (original German link). This may not prevent the players on the field from having to endure the noise, but it could at least help out the estimated 125 million people watching at home (per match).
This same idea may be in use in technology you own. Noise cancelling headphones have been around for a while. They sample ambient audio around you and play an opposing wave to cancel it out. Much like with the vuvuzelas, monotone sounds such as lawnmowers and airplane engines are the easiest to block.
It's Friday, and here's the latest video from Science Friday:
Courtesy Science Friday
In perhaps the cutest study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, psychologist Marcel Zentner and Tuomas Eerola found that babies will spontaneously boogie when they hear music and other rhythmic sounds. The findings suggest babies are not great dancers, but they smile more when they do hit the beat.
For an interesting presentation of science, checkout the Symphony of Science.
The Symphony of Science is a musical project headed by John Boswell designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.
Pretty cool. There are more if you click the link.
Hey - I'm John Boswell, the head musician and producer behind the Symphony of Science. The goal of the project is to bring scientific knowledge and philosophy to the masses, in a novel way, through the medium of music.