Friday, March 5, 2010

Thinking about Synchrony

I would like a scientific explanation of how a top level string quartet manages the rubato, retards, fermatas, and other musical effects to produce a performance that can make a listener cry, or in one case of a quatuor pour le fin du temps sob uncontrollably. Or how a listener can control the attacks of a professional Rock band. All of which I have personally observed.

Or explain

With a dramatic bow of pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii’s head, rich sounds of the piano, violins, cello and viola broke the concert hall silence as he and a string quartet played Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44.

The standing ovation lasted nearly five minutes, so long that the 20-year-old from Japan returned to the stage twice to bow, grinning from ear to ear.

The audience may have loved Friday’s performance, but not everyone may have known its significance. Tsujii—who was born blind—had to figure out how to cue the other musicians. That was especially important with the Schumann piece, because all instruments must start playing simultaneously in the first movement.

Yeah, sure. The quartet all mentally counted the 3472 microseconds from when his blind eyes crossed the horizontal and they all came in on the 3473rd. There was something else going on here. The leader, in this case Tsujii caused the syncing of the brain waves of the quintet so they could all attack at the same instant. A trained human ear can hear at least millisecond differences in the attack of stringed instruments. With a good ensemble it never does.

As noted previously this phenomenon of 'knowing when to attack' and following unpredictable tempo modifications is second nature to ensemble musicians. It is not unusual for ensemble musicians especially in rehearsal to be concentrating on the score, and yet still follow the subtle tempo changes that constitute the music.

I have experienced and seen the synchronization and its failures. I attended a Faure Requiem performance in which the famous conductor for some reason was not into the performance. The stick was right on the money. The chorus was all over the bar line. I had the privilege of performing with Robert Shaw, and there is no way to be out of sync. Somehow, one always knows exactly when to come in. The concentration he puts into a rehearsal and a performance suggests an athlete. A face towel is standard equipment and is changed at every opportunity. He is not an active conductor, so the effort is all mental. I performed the Missa Solemnis under his baton, and there is no way to do the Et Vitam fugue at the tempo he takes it by watching the stick. There is just too much going on. I will admit to the possibility of learning to count microseconds in the rehearsal, but I wouldn't bet on it. The most logical explanation is that Shaw mentally cues every entrance and the chorus and orchestra is synced in enjoying the ride.

A relevant data point can be found at SciAm report states that syncing with the metronome, at the initial attack, and in difficult rhythmic passages the measured brain waves of two unacquainted guitarists in 8 trials were synced. A popular report of follow on research by Max Plank Institute touches on many of the synchronies explored in this post. 

I will stipulate that the scientists who did the SciAm study see nothing in their results that requires an explanation which goes beyond normal brain events understood in biochemical or information processing terms. It would be quite beyond the experimental design to explain the mechanism of the synchrony. The synchrony was of course biochemical and in the information processing functions of the brains of the musicians. That is what they could measure. Like the drunk under the street light looking for lost car keys, science can only look where they have light to see. All the scientists could do was note that the synchrony existed. They could not publish the mechanism of the synchrony even if they speculated on it. At this point it is not science. That does not mean that the mechanism for the synchrony does not exist, it is just in the class of things beyond the measurable world of science.'

I think the secret of good ensemble synchronization is unconducted chamber work either choral or instrumental. And since instrumental chamber music is required of all pro level instrumentalists but not choral singers I suspect instrumental musicians are better at syncing up.

Synchrony of mental processes goes far beyond the music world. I have seen a pairs figure skater 'stumble' in a blind maneuver but be perfectly in sync with herm partner at the rejoin move which was also blind. I would submit that the skeptics have the burden of proof that the rejoin was based on anything but brain wave sync of unexplained communication channel. Not incidentally, they were out of sync with the music which was one of the reasons I noticed it.

I personally have 'researched' the reaction time bill drop bar bet. That is if you catch the bill when I drop it it is yours. Catcher's thumb and finger over the portrait. A false grab means the catcher owes the dropper the bill. Reaction time says the money is in the bank. I was demonstrating this bet with a 'fresh squeeze' who eventually became my wife. She caught the bill every time. Fingers right on the portrait usually. We tried this with a wall between us bill in a doorway and the only way I could beat her was randomizing my drop. If I so much as thought about dropping it I lost. This was witnessed by a fairly large group of peers, who were able to observe a randomized trial by a finger signal out of sight of all but the control observer.

What's to explain about mirror neurons, religious perceptions God or mental influence on others? At least in the sense that you have a better explanation for us?
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How they work. I don't have any explanation of how they work. Just the observation that they do work. I have a speculation that the spinal chord is a brain wave detector, and particularly with respect to motor nerve stimulus can provide the observed synchrony, as in the movement of a school of fish in response to a predator. Whether it can provide higher function synchrony is much more speculative, but it explains some unexplainable observations, including mirror neuron response, and group perceptions of God.

I am always amused by the way scientists conveniently ignore things like reaction time and speed of pressure wave transmission in water in trying to explain the unexplainable synchrony. But currently ESP is a grant killer on par with Creation Science, so it will take a lot of 'it just works' scientific evidence to force investigation of the mechanisms.

I have no dog in the fight. I don't believe in skepticism. Science always catches up and disproves belief systems contrary to fact. It will probably take a remote fMRI to catch a group of musicians, or a group of believers syncing up brain waves to do what is necessary.

An interesting experiment was suggested recently, which is to put a chamber ensemble in individual Faraday cages and see if they can play together. Passing the theme seamlessly from one instrument to another. Tracking rubato and expression as a unit, in short make music.

I have personally experienced, or perhaps imagined, all of the synchronies mentioned including the presence of God in a Catholic service. I can only speculate on the mechanism(s). Perhaps in the Catholic service I had a temporal lobe brain fart. Everything is on the table. But it was a physical action, genuflection, that triggered the connection with the congregation or whatever it was. I wouldn't take psychic phenomena off the table. It would have to be right up there with the brain fart. I don't have a clue as to how it worked. And as I had no previous experience of God, the feeling was of a presence like another person as described by unbelievers in the God Helmet experiment. But it definitely was not a person in the church, not even the priest. The closest analogy I can muster is the feeling I had in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

I think the analogy is apt. I have seen many a noisy group of school children fall dead silent as they cross the threshold of the memorial. I don't think it is anything supernatural, just a feeling of awe and reverence generated by those in the memorial. Is it psychic? A brain fart? Mirror neurons compelling awe and reverence? I don't think science dares to have a clue as to the mechanism. At this point it can just add a data point to the unexplained barrel."

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