ESCOM Conference 2017

In this blog post we present a few of the highlights of the 2017 European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM) conference, written from two perspectives, by Scott Bannister (PhD student) and Kelly Jakubowski (Postdoc).

Scott’s perspective:

Over the past few weeks, the field of music and science has been busy, with two large conferences taking place alongside each other, with SMPC 2017 in San Diego, California, and ESCOM 2017 in Ghent, Belgium. Of course, the Music & Science team at Durham decided that there is no flight too long or distance too far, and in fact communicated our research at both conferences; Tuomas took the long flight to San Diego and presented some pioneering research related to music and sadness, whilst Martin, Kelly and myself travelled to Belgium. This was my first larger scale music conference, and it was a positive, whirlwind of an experience. However, for any readers who either did not make it to Belgium, or are naturally interested in music and science, the following blog will hopefully give a quick insight into the ESCOM 2017 conference, and some of the novel research that is emanating from various labs, teams and individuals around the world.

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An engaging afternoon poster session

Emotion and Aesthetics

 One of the general themes established across numerous talks at ESCOM was that of musical emotions and aesthetics; this included research looking to understand emotional regulation with music, looking critically at existing theories or models, and the paradox of experiencing pleasure when listening to sad music. Indeed, two of the three morning keynote presentations across the three main days of the conference touched upon our aesthetic and emotional experiences with music in some way; Tom Fritz (Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences) gave a riveting keynote on how music enriches our experiences, touching on the almost magical alleviating properties of music on motor-freezing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and on different effects of music on pain and exhaustion. In her keynote, Elvira Brattico (Aarhus University) navigated the concept of aesthetic pleasure in music, highlighting the applications of music in health and wellbeing, as well as some intriguing suggestions of a distinction between core pleasure and conscious liking, and their contributions to enjoyment and engagement with music.

Across the various spoken presentation sessions, a wide range of papers were delivered. A personal highlight, given its relevance to my work, was ESCOM President Richard Parncutt’s (University of Graz) talk on the evolutionary origins and theories underlying musical chills; my notes for this presentation are too lengthy for a blog, but it was an engaging session, with some highlights including nice data from interviews with music listeners who spoke about their ‘chills pieces’, and the idea that chills are a form of alerting mechanism in response to some perceived threat. My own talk was perhaps less theoretical and more experimental, and showed that the chills response can be manipulated in laboratory settings, but of course empirically validating these experiences remains a central issue.

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A stimulating presentation in the main auditorium

Other interesting research came from researchers in Sheffield, with Tim Metcalfe presenting some findings on how listeners with cochlear implants perceive emotional expression in music. From another local source, the York Music Psychology Group showcased a variety of research, with Hauke Egermann presenting very interesting results regarding the interaction between aesthetic judgments and emotional responses in music; an excellent development was the concert environment setup at York with the ability to capture a variety of physiological data from the audience during a live performance. Finally, Christian Bär and Timo Fischinger (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics) considered the qualities of beautiful passages within music, which may include the human voice, melodies, bright sounds, and emotional expression such as melancholia or passion, amongst many others. There is often more to musical experience than just the music, but this line of research, whether looking at beautiful, moving or chills-inducing passages of music, was quite inspiring given the challenges that come with such work.

As my first conference, the experience was extremely rewarding, and tiring; as a PhD student coming towards the end of the first year of work, it was refreshing to step outside of the bubble so to speak, and to immersive oneself in the impressive variety of research projects taking place within music and science; heading back to my own project, I already feel as though the new perspectives I have are starting to improve the ways in which I approach certain aspects of the research.

To begin with, it was a little difficult to open a dialogue with other researchers, especially since I had to wait until near the end of the conference to formally present my work. However, in the end, especially after my talk, conversations were more productive and plentiful, and of all the people on my ‘checklist’, I had in the end spoken to them all at some point or other, and even shared lunch with some (spaghetti with a heap of cheese every single day for me, not the healthiest week I’ve had…).

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An informal chat between musical entrainment researchers

Kelly’s perspective:

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Expressive Interaction with Music’ and this was the first ESCOM conference that I’ve witnessed that really managed to stick to a common theme across the majority of the spoken presentations. I thought the end product of this effort was quite successful, in that it inspired a lot of informal conversations beyond the allocated talk sessions along the themes of how to study and measure musical co-performer interactions and expressivity.

Performance, Expressivity, & Gesture

Durham’s own Martin Clayton gave a keynote on the first morning about work from the ongoing Interpersonal Entrainment in Music Performance (IEMP) project. Focusing on a case study of an Indian duo performance, he examined not only the fluctuations in note-to-note synchrony between the musicians, but also highlighted how higher level structures such as the musical meter and expressive gestures were systematically related to low-level synchrony between the musicians. A similar theme was discussed by Jan Stupacher (University of Graz), laureate of the ESCOM Young Researcher Award, who highlighted how low-level synchronisation with music was associated with cognitive evaluations of fluency, which is a component of being in a state of ‘flow’. Esther Coorevits (Ghent University) added to this topic with a very informative talk on how expressive gestures and visual contact can improve synchronisation between two people. Finally, I followed up on Martin’s keynote later that afternoon by presenting some complementary work from the IEMP project on interaction in jazz duos, in which we used measures of the periodic movements of the musicians to predict whether or not human observers judged a section of a performance as interactive.

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Absorbed in a thought-provoking morning keynote presentation

One very interesting aspect of the conference for me was to observe the wide variety of methods that are presently being used to study gesture, expressivity, and interaction in music performance. Ghent University Award winner Kathryn Emerson (University of Sheffield) presented a novel use of methods from conversation analysis for studying the communicative gestures used by conductors in choir rehearsals. Several interesting presentations used motion capture to study the expressivity and movements of performers, including work by Clemens Wöllner (University of Hamburg) on bodily interactions in jazz duos and Rolf Inge Godøy (University of Oslo) on sound-producing body motion. Sarah Vandemoortele (LUCA School of Arts) presented ongoing work investigating how the gaze behaviour of musicians changes at points in which the melody transfers from one musician to another using mobile eye tracking. Finally, Lauren Hadley (University of Edinburgh) used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to show that brain areas involved in motor simulation are causally involved in accurate turn taking between musicians. Overall, it was stimulating to see how research questions on music cognition are continuing to expand beyond the realm of auditory perception toward capturing the true multimodal nature of music performance.

25 years of ESCOM

This particular conference also served to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of ESCOM. John Sloboda (Guildhall School of Music & Drama) and Jane Ginsborg (Royal Northern College of Music) gave a joint keynote in recognition of this anniversary. As someone who has only been attending ESCOM conferences since 2012, it was very enlightening to hear about the origins and history of ESCOM, and to see how far it has come over the past 25 years. In particular, John’s summary of contributions to ESCOM’s journal Musicae Scientiae was very interesting—to date, 885 authors have published in Musicae Scientiae, with contributions from 22 of the countries in Europe. Finland has been the top contributor to the journal when contributions are normalised by population of the country (with I’m sure at least a decent handful of these contributions coming from our colleague, Tuomas). It was also revealed that more work is needed in terms of encouraging contributions from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc in ESCOM activities. However, the main message I took away from this keynote was that, although there is much work to be done in various areas, ESCOM is a healthy society that is growing in size and scope and has much to offer over the next 25 years.

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