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Workshop at the international conference ‘SMART Animals’ at the University of Amsterdam.

Event details of Workshop: Are we musical animals?
Date 7 December 2017
Time 09:00 -16:00

Workshop description

While there is still quite some debate on the cultural and biological origins of music, there is a growing consensus that musicality has deep biological foundations, based on an accumulation of evidence for the involvement of genetic variation (Gingras, Honing, Peretz, Trainor & Fisher, 2015; Liu et al., 2016; Oikkonen, Onkamo, Järvelä & Kanduri, 2016; Peretz, 2016). Recent advances in molecular technologies provide an effective way of exploring these biological foundations. Next to examining clustering in families and co-occurrence in twins of extreme levels of musical ability, genome-wide genotyping offers a promising route to capture the polymorphic content of a large phenotyped population sample. The success of genetic studies of musical ability is, however, critically dependent on a robust, objective, and reliable measure of the musicality phenotype.

This workshop will evaluate existing measures of musicality, such as the Goldsmiths Music Sophistication index (GOLD-MSI), AMMA, MET, Karma, Seashore, etc., and discuss the opportunities to administer these standardized aptitude tests online, especially using web-based and engaging gaming techniques. The latter will provide an important step towards high-powered genome-wide screens to be able to effectively analyse musical phenotypes (Gingras et al., 2015).

Workshop organizers

John Ashley Burgoyne, University of Amsterdam
Henkjan Honing, University of Amsterdam



09:00 Registration
09:15 Introduction – prof. dr. Henkjan Honing – University of Amsterdam

Keynote 1 – dr. Bruno Gingras – University of Innsbruck

Quantifying the musical phenotype: A musico-cognitive perspective
The first aim of this talk is to present a working definition of musical ability and review test batteries for the assessment of musical ability. Because these batteries were often conceived as instruments for identifying aptitude (i.e., musical potential that is inherited or at least present at birth), a second goal is to review the evidence relating to the heritability and genetics of musical ability. With increasing opportunities to administer standardized aptitude tests online, the systematic large-scale assessment of musical abilities is now feasible, an important step towards high-powered genome-wide screens for musical aptitudes. Thus, a third aim is to provide a critical appraisal of current views and measures of musical ability and outline concrete suggestions for the development of comprehensive operational tools for quantifying the musical phenotype. 

10:30 Coffee break

Keynote 2 – prof. dr. Simon Fisher – Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

A genetic perspective on musicality
Advances in molecular technologies make it possible to pinpoint genomic factors associated with human cognition and behaviour. Identification of underlying genes can provide windows into the critical biological pathways. My talk will give an overview of the main strategies used for gene discovery and show how these methods can be applied to musicality. For example, reports have documented familial clustering for different extremes of ability, including amusia and absolute pitch, with twin studies demonstrating high heritability for music-related skills, such as pitch perception. Chromosomal regions have been linked to absolute pitch and musical aptitude, while candidate genes have been investigated in relation to individual variability in aptitude and creativity. Most recently, researchers started performing genome-wide association scans for music-related traits. However, progress in this area has been hampered by lack of power due to insufficient sample size, coupled to limitations in robustly defining components of musicality. I will end by discussing future prospects, including the potential for large-scale systematic assessments of musical abilities to transform the field.

12:00 Lunch
13:00 Coffee available at Perdu
13:30 Session 1

Fleur L. Bouwer, Heleen A. Slagter, and Henkjan Honing – Measuring rhythmic and beat perception abilities in the general population
Music plays an important role in the lives of humans around the world. The ability to understand and process music – musicality – is widespread and has been suggested to consist of several key components, including beat perception: the ability to perceive a regular beat in a time-varying rhythm (Honing, ten Cate, Peretz, & Trehub, 2015). Initial research on musicality has often stressed differences between musically trained and untrained subjects. More recently, it has been shown that many musical abilities develop without formal training (Bigand & Poulin-Charronnat, 2006). Indeed, it was suggested that beat perception is an innate ability possessed by most humans (Honing, 2012).
However, in the past few years the focus of musicality research has shifted again towards looking at individual differences. While the majority of people can to some extent perceive a beat, there are large differences between people, which do not necessarily depend on musical training (Law & Zentner, 2012). Several tests and test batteries have been developed to test rhythmic and beat perception abilities in the general population. However, it is unclear how these tests relate to each other, and what the advantages and disadvantages of the different tests are. Moreover, there is some doubt about whether some of these tests in fact validly measure beat perception (Tranchant & Vuvan, 2015). Here, we will discuss the different tests available and we present the results of a study comparing several perceptual tests in a group of healthy participants (BAASTA, Dalla Bella et al., 2017; H-BAT, Fujii & Schlaug, 2013; BAT, Müllensiefen, Gingras, Musil, & Stewart, 2014).

13.45 Heidi Järvikylä, Mrudula Arunkuma, and Makiko Sadakata – Effect of linguistic experience on perception of musical rhythms: A comparison between Finnish and English native speakers
Recent studies have illustrated how individuals who master multiple languages with diverse rhythmic characteristics show better skills in perception of musical rhythms (Roncaglia-Denissen et. al 2013; 2016). However, rhythmic characteristics of speech can be defined in various ways, e.g., the metric preference or the overall rhythmicity of speech unit, and it is unclear which characteristic is contributing to this effect. To further understand this transfer of learning from language to music, we are currently collecting data to compare the accuracy of musical rhythm perception performance by native Finnish speakers and English monolingual speakers. All Finnish speakers are multilingual with English as their second language. Finnish and English share the metric preference: trochee, characterised as a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. However, the two languages differ in the overall rhythmicity of the speech unit: e.g., variability of vowel durations tends to be much higher in English than in Finnish. The perceptual skill of musical rhythm is measured by Music Ear Test (Wallentin et al., 2010). We are also collecting the data of working memory, musical experience and linguistic background information. If Finnish speakers outperformed English speakers in the music rhythm perception test, the speech unit rhythm would be the relevant feature regarding the effect more than the lexical meter. An absence of the group difference could potentially signify that the lexical metric preference is more relevant for the improvement in the musical perception than the overall speech unit rhythm.
14:00 Manuela M. Marin, Raphaela Schober, Bruno Gingras, and Helmut Leder – How can the experience of music affect sexual attraction in humans?
Several theories about the origins of music have emphasized its biological and social functions, including in courtship. Darwin proposed that music may act as a courtship display due to its capacity to vary in complexity and emotional content. Support for music’s reproductive function comes from the recent finding that only women in the fertile phase of the reproductive cycle prefer composers of complex melodies to composers of simple ones as short-term sexual partners (Charlton, 2014). However, the precise mechanisms by which music may influence sexual attraction are unknown, specifically how musical sound may interact with visual attractiveness cues and affect perception and behaviour in both genders. Using a crossmodal priming paradigm, we examined whether listening to music influences ratings of facial attractiveness and dating desirability of opposite-sex faces. We also tested whether misattribution of arousal or pleasantness underlies these effects, and explored whether sex differences and menstrual cycle phase may be moderators. Our sample comprised 64 women in the fertile or infertile phase (no hormonal contraception use) and 32 men, carefully matched for mood, relationship status, and musical preferences. Musical primes (25 s) varied in arousal and pleasantness, and targets were photos of faces with neutral expressions (2 s). Group-wise analyses indicated that women, but not men, gave significantly higher ratings of facial attractiveness and dating desirability after having listened to music than in the silent control condition. High-arousing, complex music yielded the largest effects, suggesting that music may affect human courtship behaviour through induced arousal, which calls for further studies on the mechanisms by which music affects physical attractiveness cues in real-life social contexts.
14.15 Responses and discussion from dr. Gingras and prof. dr. Fisher
14.30 Coffee break
15:00 Session 2

Berit Janssen – The Telephone Game: Studying transmission through mobile apps
There is a long-standing interest in the transmission of music, and how such transmission affects music, as variation is introduced in the process. Music transmission forms complex transmission chains, as individuals pass on music to peers or members of another generations, and in groups or in teacher-student relationships. To reduce this complexity, transmission has been studied in the lab, employing artificial transmission chains. There are two potential drawbacks of such lab research: one, transmission chains cannot be very long or complex, due to time and resource limitations; two, participants need to perform music (i.e., sing or tap), while they are being watched or recorded – a socially challenging situation which might divert their attention from the music they are asked to reproduce.
I propose to study music transmission through the mobile app The Telephone Game: making use of a mobile device’s microphone and speaker, participants can listen to and record music, and invite friends to listen and record their own rendition. After participating, individuals can choose to be updated whenever later versions of their renditions are recorded, which is the source of engagement in the well-known telephone game, in which groups pass on a message. This means that transmission chains can be longer and more complex than in lab studies, and that the participants’ self-consciousness about music performance abilities might decrease as they play with friends. The game transmission will provide invaluable evidence for variation introduced through music transmission.


dr. Ashley Burgoyne – Measurement and reliability challenges in citizen science for music cognition
Citizen science offers an exceptional opportunity to collect data on a much larger scale and traditional cognitive experiments. Researchers music cognition are especially lucky given that music can serve as a natural motivator for participation and evokes ongoing public fascination, especially given the rise of digital music players and streaming and recommendation services. On the other hand, citizen-science data are notoriously messy, and attention spans in casually gamified contexts are notoriously short. What is realistic to expect from participants in large online experiments – and what is realistic to expect from researchers?

This talk will discuss some of the challenges and successes in analysing the data from Hooked on Music, an online experiment that has collected more than three million data points to date. We will look informally at demographics and playtime statistics and then more formally at the quality of the scientific measurements. In two versions of the experiment, each successful, data sparsity is a statistical challenge despite what superficially appear to be very large data sets. Separating ‘reliable’ from casual participants is also more difficult than it might seem, and exclusion criteria are especially consequential for citizen-science work given that one should expect a relatively high exclusion rate. The talk will conclude with the strategies we used to ensure data quality for Hooked on Music and suggest some practical guidelines for using citizen science as a tool for experimental measurement in music cognition.

15.30 Responses and discussion from dr. Gingras and prof. dr. Fisher
15.45 Closing – prof. dr. Henkjan Honing – University of Amsterdam
16.00 Travel to plenary events