Things that are Awesome

I'm feeling happy today, and I want to share some stuff that makes me happier.

The first is one of the gifts I got Shea for Christmas.

It comes with a few strips of music paper and a whole punch so you can play your own music! I punched out a song I wrote for Shea a year ago (Shea's Theme- for reference, see here )
It really wasn't hard and came with an instruction booklet. I think that as long as you can get a hold of the sheet music for the song you want, you can punch it without any musical background.

Here it is in action:

Something else that is

I bought a pair today, because it's really cold in Rochester, and I really like music! My ears are always the first things to go numb outside, and I am always sad that I have no desire to stick cold plastic headphones in them to enjoy music.

RORUS! It's what Rory gave Shea for valentines day, completely outdoing me :-/

Here is a cool thing for people in dorms that would rather their dorms didn't smell like dorms:

You can put fragrance oil in them and press a button and a little fan comes on that makes the room smell nice. I went with pineapple mango.

I bought a pair of these and turned them into friendship necklaces for Shea and I (only we got G and C because the bond more strongly than U and A).

Something that I love and use every morning:

I love pottery. I really wish I had time to learn to make my own. I especially like chocolate and navy glazes.

I may post more awesome things in the future, but I'm out of ideas for today.


Music and the Mind

My number one ambition in life is to study the brain and music cognition. I want to discover the physiological mechanism for emotional response to music. I want to know why we enjoy it so much, why some make it the focus of their lives, and why the world would be completely different in it's absence.
Therefore, I am at the University of Rochester working on my B.S. in neuroscience. This semester I found the perfect class to fit my interests: Music and the Mind. I have a lot of thoughts about the material we've covered and about material I think so far has been missing that I want to discuss. Conveniently, I have a midterm for this class on Thursday, so I'm using this as an opportunity to comment on the class material so far.

The first big topic we discussed was absolute pitch. Popularly called "Perfect Pitch," AP is the ability to label pitches by name with no external reference. If I could do this, my a cappella group would never need a pitch pipe again, because I could just sing them our starting note. I could tell you what note my refrigerator was humming (although not terribly useful that would be cool!). I could also tell if I was singing off key, which would be a lovely skill to have. Although it seems that a skill like this would make me into a better musician, there isn't a whole lot of evidence that AP possessors are innately better musicians. So why do 1 in 10,000 people have it? What purpose does it serve? How do they get it?
There seems to be strong evidence for some sort of critical period involved in the acquisition of AP. This evidence is based off of surveys which show that AP possessors started formal music training before the age of 6. Other studies claim that AP is innate and everyone is born with it, but go through an "unlearning" process. Head turning studies on babies have given some evidence that this theory may have some merit, although the details are vague.
This is only one side of the two-component theory for AP though. Pitch labeling seems to be a skill that few individuals possess. The other component is pitch memory. This seems to be wide spread throughout the population. A study done by Daniel Levitin showed that random people off the street could sing back their favorite song within semitones of the actual key it was written in. Other studies showed that subjects performed above chance in a task in which they had to identify which of two recordings of a popular TV theme song had been transposed and which was in the original key. So why do people possess this skill?
Theories exist that say music evolved accidentally, and that originally its precursors conferred some sort of sexual advantage or survival benefit. Some say that music was no accident, and that it provides survival benefits in itself, such as group bonding, sexual attraction to those proficient at it, and as a form of communication. Based on the evidence I've seen so far, I align myself with the thinking of the latter.The implications of the former theory are that all the components of music evolved separately and then in some massive genetic accident that affected nearly every human on earth each converged to form the phenomenon of music. An experiment done in 2005 by McDermott and Hauser gave evidence that non human primates do not perceive dissonance to be undesirable the way humans do. Proponents for the theory that music evolved as a whole find this experiment to be further evidence. If our evolutionary ancestors don't have this key part of music perception, where did that piece of the whole come from? I believe that the reason humans are the only species who have music as a part of everyday life is because it did evolve as a whole.
The rest of the class to this point has been about psychoacoustics and what physical actions create the vibrations that we perceive as pitch. While fascinating, I don't have much to comment on. There are some very interesting auditory illusions we've discussed, such as Shepard tones:

If you listen carefully, you can catch the trick.
While interesting, we have yet to discuss what I'm most interested in:
Why does that song elicit the emotion that it does? You feel it in the pit of your stomach. It seems to move you. How? Why? Why should vibrations in the air converted to electrical impulses in the inner ear be able to communicate so clearly a vivid, raw emotion? Your skin temperature changes. Your pulse quickens. You feel yourself moving to the beat. You are experiencing what the person who wrote it wanted you to feel. Composers don't have a knowledge of how the brain functions, but they can put together notes and rhythm and volume and have an orchestra play it just the right way so that they express to you a specific emotion. I want to study why music should make people feel anything at all, why the emotions felt seem to be so universal, and how someone can translate their feelings into a musical composition to begin with. I doubt that a composer chooses a minor third to convey sadness because of his vast knowledge of the change in cortisol levels that results upon hearing this interval. Is it something learned, or is it innate? Could we be conditioned to perceive a perfect fifth as sad and a minor third as happy if that was how the culture utilized those intervals? Or could an individual never exposed to music before perceive the emotion Clint Mansell was trying to communicate through Lux Aeterna?
There is some thought that mirror neurons are responsible for the reflection of emotion in the listener, just as they are though to be involved in a baby learning to smile by watching someone else do it. Functional MRI studies have shown that just thinking about a song produces the same neural response as hearing it. I plan to read more into the subject and find out if the same brain activity is occurring in the composer as he conceptualizes a piece of music, and in the listener as he hears the finished product. If this is true, how and why?
These are the kind of questions I want to make a career out of answering. I'll let you know what I find out.