Music and Science Symposium: Cross-Cultural Perspectives


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Recently, the music and science team at Durham University were all extremely fortunate to have some fantastic visitors. At the Institute of Advanced Study here at Durham, Professor Bill Thompson (Macquarie University, Australia) spent some time as a research fellow, and gave numerous fascinating and engaging talks; and as if that was not enough, Professor Marcel Zentner (Innsbruck University, Austria) was also spending some time at neighbouring city York. Earlier this year, we held our inaugural music and science symposium, with guest lecturer Professor David Huron, and so the bar was set quite high for developing the second instalment. As natural opportunists however, we thought this wealth of expertise and visits from two eminent scholars would prove an excellent basis for our second planned music symposium; this was indeed what we managed to arrange, with our second symposium having taken place at the start of December, focussing on cross-cultural perspectives in music and science research. The event was quite casual, and relatively small scale, and so this blog was a quick idea, to just give a little information and some personal highlights to all who might have heard about this, have an interest in the research area, or to those who planned to attend but were unable to. You can visit the events page on our website to see a general outline of talks and topics that were discussed on the day.

As an organizer of the event who had relatively little to contribute in terms of material or talks, I was in a privileged position to sit, relax (sort of!), and watch the event play out. Our own Tuomas Eerola started by introducing us all to some fundamental foundations of cross-cultural research, highlighting issues of interpretation, approaches at cultural, psychosocial and biological levels, and noting inconsistencies in the relatively small amount of research published in this area. We then had a wonderful invited talk from Dr. Hauke Egermann, currently leading and developing the exciting York Music Psychology group; this presentation included an exciting research project assessing musically-induced emotions in Canadian and Congolese listeners, using interesting methodologies of objective emotional measurements such as facial electromyography and skin conductance.

After managing to run our discussion right through the planned coffee break (who needs it anyway?), Professor Bill Thompson gave an extended talk that reviewed some existing theories of cross-cultural music cognition, and offered an extremely insightful perspective into ways the area of research might develop. Some particularly fascinating ideas include understanding multi-cultural music cognition and how different cultures may interact in individual listeners; those who have migrated for example may have very interesting understandings of their own native music, and the music of their new culture. Furthermore, there is the sheer complexity of cross-cultural research and the many ways in which to approach it (cognitive universals, ethnographic approaches, historical and sociological perspectives); indeed, developing a framework of cross-cultural research in music and science may need to integrate and encapsulate these varying approaches, which may sometimes seem quite distinct, but can be brought together with enough work and drive.

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Professor Bill Thompson gave an excellent extended talk at the symposium

Now we were still owed a coffee break, and over lunch swarmed the local café (without informing them…), and prepared for the afternoon session, with a double header of our own Martin Clayton and Kelly Jakubowski discussing various aspects of the ongoing Interpersonal Entrainment in Music Performance project. Martin looked specifically at aspects of synchrony in ensemble performance, particularly measurements of asynchrony across corpora from different cultures around the world (for example Indian and Candombe corpora); interestingly, some aspects that may affect synchrony in performance include the metrical position, particularly the position of subdivisions, whilst tempo appears to have a smaller effect; some differences emerge when comparing across cultures, and numerous interesting questions spring to mind, such as the larger, immediate question of how we might explain these differences in synchrony. Kelly on the other hand talked through some aspects of audio-visual recordings, and how they have and can be utilised to study aspects of interpersonal entrainment in music; for example, motion capture processes may be used to quantify visual coordination in movements between performing musicians, through wavelet analysis; a recent and potentially useful publication also covers some of these aspects, should you be interested.

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Professor Martin Clayton found himself up at the front on two occasions, showing incredible levels of endurance.

For the closing talks, Martin found himself again speaking, this time on behalf of Laura Leante who sadly was unable to attend on the day; however, the talk was truly fascinating, working through a dataset of metaphors used by listeners to describe Hindustani classical music; some themes presented include nature metaphors (rivers, mountains, sunsets), devotion, memories, nostalgia, and a further wide range of emotional aspects. This was a very exciting dataset for me to see personally, and was quite relatable in that some of my stronger emotional experiences with music seem to co-occur with these kinds of visual images; a possible thought might be how visual imagery and metaphor may be linked to musical chills. Finally, Professor Marcel Zentner kindly provided a talk about how we might measure musical ability across different cultures, with a focus on a recent measurement tool called the Profile of Music Perception Skills (PROMS). Of course, musical ability is historically a contentious issue, in terms of standardized assessment methods, nature vs. nurture etc., and whilst there is no clear answer, there is promise that engaging in cross-cultural research could be truly beneficial for developing measurement tools and concepts regarding what exactly constitutes musical ability.


Professor Marcel Zentner giving a fascinating talk on cross-cultural approaches to musical ability.

To complete a day full of engaging talks from inspiring speakers, a very casual discussion between all who attended was set up, and this was a central highlight of the event, to see scholars with extensive knowledge and experience in cross-cultural work, music psychology and science more broadly, converse, debate and engage with the audience as well as each other. What locations are a priority? Is increasing exposure to Western music and culture imposing a time limit of some kind on cross-cultural research? What aspects about music (perception, cognition, social)? Importance of building networks and overcoming difficulties in performing this kind of research? It was excellent not only to take part in these discussions and debates about various ideas moving forward, but to also hear these anecdotes from experts who have been out in the field and experienced these various cultures to an extent.

Overall, it was a great privilege to be organising the symposium with such inspirational researchers, who possess a wealth of experience and understanding of music, science and cross-cultural approaches; it was inspiring, and I felt that if I ever get the chance to look cross-culturally in my current research, then this would be a fantastic way of augmenting and developing some of the current work in music and strong emotions. Of course, organising is a double-edged sword, and the Christmas forces were at work to stop us from eating, drinking and refuelling (Christmas fair on the same day completely blocked any food delivery…what are the chances!); but even Christmas could not stop the music and science symposium.

On that note, I hope this very small insight into our recent symposium was useful or revealing in some way, and I wish you all a very merry Christmas and happy new year. Big thanks again to all the contributors who made the event as inspiring and insightful as it was.


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