A New Variant of Conference: highlights from SysMus21

Back to face-to-face conferences? Well… not quite. A hybrid conference that is going to shape the way future conferences are run? Definitely. Nonetheless, the opportunity to meet and greet with those wonderful scholars from the world of music science without my pyjamas on was a welcome change to the last year. The student run conference, the International Conference of Students of Systematic Musicology (SysMus) took place in Aarhus, Denmark at the Centre for Music in the Brain, organised by a wonderful team of PhD students and Post-Docs from the department. Durham University’s Music and Science Lab sent along two PhD students (SysMus veterans Thomas M. Lennie & Annaliese Micallef Grimaud) to add to the programme of 27 oral presentations, 2 keynotes, 4 workshops, and 35 poster presentations.

Before the main event Annaliese and I took the opportunity to attend a satellite event being hosted by the Centre for Music in the Brain (MiB) where we got a whirlwind tour of some of the amazing research happening at MiB and a chance to view and ask questions about the many neuroscientific tools MiB has at its disposal in the attached university hospital (MEG, EEG, fMRI). Magnetoencephalography (MEG), the latest in the neuroscientific toolbox at MiB, is the only one in the country and has really allowed the staff and students at the centre to ask different questions, explained one of our guides. The day also saw several notable presentations from distinguished scholars at the centre. Prof. Peter Keller, new to MiB, opened the day with a collection of 20 years of research identifying the perceptual and motor based neural mechanisms which enable people to interact and communicate in musical contexts. Many other notable presentations highlighted the breadth of research happening at the centre including research into Parkinson’s care, beat perception and a 101 crash-course in modelling the brain from Assistant Prof. Henrique Fernandes.

Day two began with a treat. Keynote speaker Jonna Vuoskoski led us through her latest research looking at the social dimension of music cognition – a theme that was to become a recurring element to the conference. It’s always a pleasure to hear Jonna talk. Her profound ability to bring together multiple studies into a single narrative gives the audience a strong overview of all the current research ideas looking at social aspects of music. Appraisal theories in various forms (there are many types of appraisal theory) became a consistent theme across all the studies presented in the keynote, suggesting appraisal plays a key role in the social importance of music. A point we shall return to in the emotion and cognition session of day three. You can watch Jonna’s talk here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qayIrx2QuKM

After a few local beers with the wonderful cohort at MiB, SysMus21 kicked off with a welcome talk from the centre’s director Peter Vuust, pointing to some new and interesting hypotheses that allow predictive processing theories to become more directly testable, rather than just modelled. The first day quickly took up SysMus’ typical multidisciplinary approach with talks on wellbeing, data science, and visual imagery. PhD student Rory Kirk from Sheffield University presented some interesting Spotify API data for analysing music people use to fall asleep. Orla Mallon showed the music science field just what it can learn by looking beyond the music science bubble, with a unique approach to weighting problems in data mining taken from the long-established field of linguistics. Finally, Landon Peck at Oxford University brought together a battery of tests on aesthetic awe, showing just how important appraisal (conscious and unconscious cognitive evaluations of an event or stimulus that guide further emotion processing) is in musical emotions. After the presentations, leaving the audience time to digest the wealth of information, we broke out into workshops. I took the opportunity to attend Joshua Bamford’s (SysMus Chair) workshop on collaborations. Josh, as the conference’s former director, knows better than anyone that SysMus is all about the people – the people you might one day collaborate with.

There was just enough time to take stock of these many important findings over a coffee and a snack before the day rushed on. Persa Tzanaki presented a new feedback loop model of synchronisation and empathy while Maurusa Levstek noted the importance of music education in schools and many of the problems that can be overcome when working with protected data. Day two saw interactions between the in-person and virtual participants take shape through Gather Town. Such hybrid events highlighted within the conference programme allowed not only for a much more relaxed feel to the presentation schedule but offered a whole new dimension to networking. The non-formal environment allowed speakers from the day to host conversation tables that became hot-spots for new ideas. I not only met virtual attendees but also made connections with several in-person participants I hadn’t yet been able to talk to. The digital session blended seamlessly into the running of the conference and really added to the overall experience, instead of being the obligation it had become over the previous year.

The MSL in avatar form

After another evening of Danish hospitality and socialising, not forgetting the free pizza provided by ESCOM, the third and final day started with the other keynote from Nori Jacoby (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zf4Gam66f4w). Nori brought forth a fascinating new methodology for assessing the universality and cultural specificity of mental representations of rhythm. Using the classic 3-dimensional representation of rhythmic space, a tapping experiment that adjusts itself to small variations in participant reproductions of given rhythms shows cross-cultural groupings around smaller ratios, while more complex ratios display greater cultural variation. The experiment had been run both online and in person and across several cultures, including by the MSL’s own Kelly Jakubowski here at Durham University, providing an impressive data collection. Interestingly, online studies showed significantly less variation, leading to complex questions about the substantial benefits and disadvantages of online data collection. Future studies hope to expand on this methodology and look at specific populations, such as deaf participants, to see if representations of rhythm show similar cross-cultural standardisation and variation. There is exciting stuff to come from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.

The last two sessions of SysMus21 (cognition and emotion) hosted a selection of interesting topics. Sarah Faber truly stole the stage with her light-hearted and thoroughly engaging presentation. She presented a Markov-model of music listening in multiple modalities not just across space but also across time. Most notably, and conveniently tied into the following session on emotion, Sarah highlighted the importance of interaction between emotional processes (arousal and valence – core-affect) and goal-directed movement as key components in the model. Durham’s own Thomas Lennie then began the final session on emotion, where goal-directed appraisal makes another key contribution to our understanding of musical emotions. A comparison between two emotions models (BRECVEMA and Dimensional-Appraisal) shows how the Dimensional-Appraisal model substantially outperforms the BRECVEMA. Such new models in music highlight a variety of different aspects to musical meaning that remain broadly unexplored by existing frameworks, including behaviour, social meaning, and personal relevance. This builds on a goal-directed account presented by Lennie & Eerola (under review) in their CODA (Constructivistly-Organised Dimensional-Appraisal) model, tying in closely with current understanding of social musical dimensions presented by Jonna.

Durham University’s Music and Science Lab making a substantial contribution to the emotion research presented at SysMus21, Annaliese Micallef Grimaud took to the stage next. She presented a concise overview of her PhD documenting the development of EMOTEcontrol, an interactive cue manipulation tool that requires no musical training to use. It is a tool with a promising future, as shown by the presentation that captured the audiences’ imaginations.

A huge thank you to Signe Hagner, Jan Stupacher, Niels Chr. Hansen, Christine Ahrends, and all those who helped in organising the event. Finally, the big reveal we’ve all been waiting for. Next year’s SysMus 2022 will be held in Ghent, Belgium, running in a similar hybrid format to make it accessible to all, and hosting keynotes from both Psyche Loui and Mendel Kaelen. It’s sure to be a great conference with the host university specialising in motion capture, EEG, and virtual reality. As ever though, the reason I keep going to SysMus is the people; friendly, informative, and thoroughly engaged in what’s going on. If you haven’t tried it yet; trust me, it’s worth it. And if you’re looking to make a few new friends too, make sure to come say ‘Hi’ to the MSL team.

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