Archive pour la catégorie ‘The science of music’

The Mozart Effect: myth or reality?

13 January 2014

In 1993, a rather controversial study had shown that listening to Mozart’s Two Pianos Sonata K. 448 for 10 minutes gave a focus group better  spatial QI results (8 or 9 points higher). The effect lasted only about 10-15 minutes though. Since then, several scientists have tried to prove by various means that this study was not to be trusted while others surfed on the wave of the sudden interest for Mozart’s music in the mid-90s to sell numerous CDs who vowed to stimulate the listener, whether an adult or a baby. (Mozart’s arrangements presented on those recordings were odd enough that a musician parent didn’t dare put the disc more than once in the player.) 

We felt we had heard everything about this, but it seems that some may have escaped us, for example the fact that the Mozart Effect was proven to be working in the case of epilepsy treatment. Indeed, after 23 of the 29 patients with focal discharges listened to the the Mozart sonata, their electroencephalogram showed a significant decrease in epileptiform activity.

You might be interested in reading thoroughly the article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine a few years back here…

Why not tailor your own Mozart effect while listening to his Concerto for flute and harp, amongst the offering on Valérie Milot and Violons du Roy’s latest album, there…



Tango could lesser Parkinson’s side effects

17 October 2013

Dr. Gammon M. Earhart, a scientist from the Washington University School of Medicine, had already stated in the European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine that “dance appears to meet many, if not all, of the recommended components for exercise programs designed for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.” 

A new study from Emory University, Atlanta, set out to determine the practicability and the effectiveness of delivering adapted tango for PD in the community. The trial involved 31 patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. Among the patients 24 received 20 90-minutes long adapted tango lessons over the course of 12 weeks. Nine patients were assigned to a patient-centered education program on Parkinson’s disease management. 

The Fullerton Advanced Balance Scale  scores showed an increase in both groups. Spatial cognition as evaluated with the Brooks Spatial Task improved significantly in the tango group but no change was seen the education group. In their conclusion the researchers wrote that “Community-based adapted tango for PD can be safely delivered with high participant satisfaction/retention and potential for improving balance”.

Another reason to put your dancing shoes and listen to music!

You can read the full article here…


21st annual Congress on Acoustics in Montreal

3 June 2013

The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) and the Canadian Acoustical Association (CAA) are hosting the 21st International Congress on Acoustics in Montreal this week (until June 7), at the Palais des congrès de Montréal. Various topics related to the science of acoustics will be discussed, including “Studying the sea with sound” (by Stan E. Dosso and Jan Dettmer), “Basics and applications of psychoacoustics” (Hugo Fastl), “Objective evaluation of musical instrument quality: A grand challenge in musical acoustics” (D. Murray Campbell) and “Sensory evaluation of  concert hall acoustics” (Tapio Lokki). Various scholar papers will be presentend as well throughout the congress and participants will be able as well to visit the parallel exposition as well as the Maison symphonique de Montréal. Tonight, all will be at the I Musici concert, Love and tango, to be held at Église St-Jean-Baptiste.

To learn more about the congress…

Early music training and brain connections

14 February 2013

Professional musicians probably barely blinked when they read the results of a new study rectenly published by McGill and Concordia Universities teams, but nevertheless… The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, just confirmed what most of them already knew: early music lessons (before 7) help the development of the brain, in a substantial enough way that can be detetected on brain scans. This is what surprised Professor Virginia Penhune, who oversaw the study with Robert Zatorre, the most.  “We had thought that maybe the difference would be very subtle,” she said in an interview.

The study tested 36 adults on a movement task, and scanned their brains. Half had musical training before age 7, while the other one started at a later age. Both groups had equal years of musical training and experience. The groups were also compared with people with less or no musical training.  “Practising an instrument before age 7 likely boosts the normal maturation of connections between motor and sensory regions of the brain, creating a framework upon which ongoing training can build,” Penhune said. The study also supported earlier findings that the white part of the corpus callosum was higher in those trained early in music.

Before you register your toddler in music lessons, remember that strong brain connections is not all that a musician is about: you need depth, artistry and a strong love for your instrument.

You can read more about the study in this article from The Gazette…



The Stradivarius perfection: a myth?

18 January 2012

There is no doubt about it, the Stradivarii are still a very hot topic. Have scientists finally discover the mysterious “secret” behing their exceptional qualities? Not really… Indeed, a recent study by French acoustician Claudia Fritz, from Université Paris-VI, hints that the instruments may not be as wonderful as everyone seems to think. During the 2010 edition of the Indianapolis International Violin Competition, she led a blind test with 21 very high level violinists: several competitors of course, as well as some experts and a couple of experienced instrumentalists. Throughout the process, participants wore welder’s glasses to mask any distinct caracteristics of the instrument and the room was filled with perfume so that the typical old wood scent wouldn’t be able to influence the violinists’ answers.

The study was two-folded. First, participants were invited to play, in a random order, on three modern violins made by famous luthiers, two Stradivarii and one Guarnerius del Gesu. Afterwards, they indicated which instrument they would  bring home with them. Secondly, two violins were shown and they simply had to find which one of the two was the 18th century one. Here, most failed miserably and, when came time to pick “their” instrument, only 8 out of the 21 picked one of the three “famous” ones. The instrument which appealed to most was a modern one and the one least chosen was… a Strad circa 1700.

When the study was published, early this month, many detractors stated that it was ridiculous to consider “taming” an instrument in a hotel room, in a few short minutes and that the qualities of an instrument would be revealed much later on. It so happens that I recently spoke with violist Antoine Tamestit who explained to me that the encounter he had with his Strad was far from love at first sight, that he considered on several occasions givin g it back to the Habisreutinger Foundation and that it took him more than a year before he developed a close connection with the instrument!

One thing is for certain: these mystical instruments have not revealed yet quite yet…

An article from The Star to read about this…

The challenges behind the acoustics of the Maison symphonique

21 November 2011

In September,  music lovers were enthusiastic to finally hear the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s full potential, in a hall that has had to overcome many obstacles before being built. More than 20 000 people, most of which had never set foot in a concert hall before flocked en masse to take the grand tour during the Open House events held the first week. Nevertheless,  Tateo Nakajima, partner in charge and lead acoustics designer of the project, is convinced that the inauguration of the hall should not be perceived as a finish line, but as the starting point for the orchestra to learn to work under new conditions. I met with him, Richard Roberts, Concertmaster of the orchestra since 1982, Paul Merkelo, Principal Trumpet since 1995 and Marianne Perron, Director of Music Programming, to discuss where do we go from here, for an article published in the November 5 issue of Classical Music, a British trade magazine.

Here is an excerpt: (more…)

Tuning fork

27 September 2011

In the midst of all those anniversaries scheduled in 2011, this one will surely be forgotten. Indeed, it was 300 years ago that John Shore, a British trumpet player and instrument maker, is thought to have invented this tool.

A tuning fork is shaped as a two-pronged U fork. Usually made of steel, it resonates at a specific constant pitch (which depends on the lenghts of the two prongs used) when set vibrating by striking it against a surface, whether a table or an instrument.

Currently, the most common tuning fork is set to produce the note A and vibrates at 440 Hz. It is used as the tuning note by most orchestras. Baroque ensembles will generally used a different A to tune, between 392 and 415 Hz (the most popular frequency used) because it puts less strain on the older, more sensitive, instruments.

Neuroscience Working for Music

27 February 2010

For 50 years Jean-Paul Despins has taught music and the means to transmit it to generations of students at Montreal’s Le Plateau school, Université Laval in Quebec City, and now at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal). He is the embodiment of the ever-young professor: sparkling eyes, often teasing, communicative, and given to hearty laughter. One senses the fever to teach that continues to possess him, whether he’s convincing one person or a whole class of aspiring teachers–his mission being the need to rethink the basic premises of teaching music in elementary school. He’s extremely vocal about the problems he perceives in the educational system. For the last 20 years he has campaigned militantly to have neuroscience integrated into the teaching of music.

Emotion governs reason

Despins stresses the need to put emotion back into the vocabulary of musical education. “Teaching places too much emphasis on cognitive learning, without calling on emotion, despite the fact that we know emotion governs reason. People can’t learn on the basis of negative behaviour, and therefore of negative emotions. If I ask you to play a piano sonata movement that you’ve learned, you’ll play the one you like best. You’ll have forgotten the one you didn’t like. We have to throw off this constraint, this habit of intellectualizing everything without supplying any emotional input.”

In Despins’ view, the teacher’s primary mission is to transmit these emotions. “Children are a little like animals. They understand the teacher through their eyes. If the teacher doesn’t transmit any emotion, the child will always have problems.” However, learning situations aren’t designed to suit all children. Teachers can help them learn, but mustn’t force them. This is where the ability to read behaviour comes in–to be able to anticipate a student’s reactions, rather than simply react to them. (more…)

Great violins demystified (3/3)

5 December 2009


The transparency, colour and elasticity of the varnish used by the Cremonese masters still inspire admiration from luthiers three centuries later. However, belief that the varnish was a major factor in the sound quality of those old instruments is a relatively modern concept. “One can look long and hard through books, manuscripts and archives of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and find not a word mentioning any special product; on the contrary, the rare document that does say anything on the subject seems to prove that the master luthiers and their contemporaries attached no great importance to it.” (Lucien Greilsame, Vernis de Crémone, étude historique et critique).

In 1819, Savart maintained in his treatise Sur la construction des instruments à cordes et à archet that “varnish offers beauty to the eye and preserves the quality of sound. If the top plate is not varnished, the instrument looses its mellowness and carrying power.” He goes on to say that “the wood of violins does not deteriorate, even though the instruments are tightly strung, while guitars, though they are hardly less tightly strung but lack varnish, do deteriorate rather quickly.” (more…)

Great violins demystified (2/3)

3 December 2009

The kinds of wood used

The first Italian luthiers in Brescia preferred poplar or wood of similar density such as pear or even cedar for the back, ribs and scroll of their instruments and pine for the top plate. These woods were soon replaced by maple (back, ribs and scroll), which ensured greater resistance, a more brilliant sound and more appealing look. Stradivari usually chose Norwegian spruce, which has regularly spaced, tightly-packed patterns of growth rings, for the top plate and maple for the back and ribs (wood apparently cut during the period of the waning moon in late January).

From research done at Columbia University comes a theory holding that the density of wood is responsible for the unique sound of these violins. Scientists were able to determine that there had been a period of severe cold weather across western Europe from 1645 to 1715, caused by a decline in solar activity (known as the Maunder Minimum). This slowed the growth of vegetation and produced denser wood in trees. Through the science of dendrochronology, which allows us to retrace history through observing the spacing of tree rings, we know that the rings corresponding to the years 1625 through 1720 were closest together in the trees from this region.

In our next post: the varnish

James Ehnes on the 1715 2nd Marsick in works for solo violin by Bach…