Audio illusion: the accelerating metronome

Here’s an experience I had a few years ago while practising to play in Smetana’s Bartered Bride overture. As I remember, I was playing in the second violins at the time.

The music

The main feature of the overture’s opening is that each violin section has to play a long, continuous stream of very fast semiquavers for the first page or so. (Probably this applies to the other string sections too.) Since  players of other parts have to fit their semiquavers to them when they join in, the music can hold together only if they’re played accurately in time. Accuracy is essential.

This is a dangerous situation: the natural tendency of a stream of equal notes is to rush, and they’ll rush even more if the player is feeling a bit panicky about playing them. In an amateur orchestra it’s likely that at least some players will be tempted to experience such panic. And once any rushing starts, it won’t be unaimous: everyone will accelerate differently so they’re no longer playing the same notes at the same time.

This kind of rushing is contagious, too. So all a passage like this really needs in order to risk disaster is for one player to start rushing and a few others nearby to lose their nerve. It’s a very short step from that to total chaos.

The practice

So this was one of those rare cases where it was a good idea to practise with a metronome. (Normally this is a bad idea; it leads to a mechanically rigid tempo, which in most circumstances is unmusical.) There were two main aspects I had to practise: (i) learning the notes and fingerings well enough not to stumble over anything; (ii) keeping the tempo absolutely constant.

So I practised with a metronome, considerably below tempo at first, and increasing the speed very gradually. (The aim in this sort of practice is to repeat the experience of getting the notes right until you can do so at full tempo—not to repeat the experience of getting them wrong and of being forced to play too fast. Otherwise you’re training yourself to get them wrong, not to get them right.) Eventually I could play the entire passage, up to speed (with a little extra left over for comfort) and in time.

Practising like this involves quite intense concentration on very short timescales: listening to hear whether each note is coming out correctly, paying attention to the feeling in the fingers as they either automatically go to the correct note or try to play the wrong one, keeping the bow stroke metronomic, watching out for any hint of stumbling, and so on.

The illusion

But what was really interesting about these practice sessions was what happened once I stopped playing. Within a few seconds, I had the impression that I could hear the metronome speeding up. In fact it seemed to be accelerating quite dramatically. So much so that if it had been a fellow player in the orchestra I’d have thought they were rushing quite badly. I estimate that the apparent increase in speed was around 15%–20%.

But of course the metronome wasn’t suddenly speeding up; it’s a highly accurate electronic one, and all that had happened was that I’d stopped playing notes on the violin. Yet it was almost impossible to believe that the metronome wasn’t accelerating. I could hear it going faster and faster.

I interpreted this as my perception slowing down, now that I was no longer concerned with what happened from one tenth of a second to the next. It seemed as though my mind had sped up in order to play the fast music, and was now returning to its normal pace.

I wonder whether this is one of the reasons musicians have to train themselves not to rush when playing fast music. If your time perception changes so the music feels much slower than it actually is, you’ll have no idea that you’ve sped up. It’ll feel as though you’re playing at just the same speed you were all along. As musicians we have to learn what kinds of passages are prone to rushing, and how it feels not to rush. Often this involves playing at a speed which feels as though it’s definitely too slow, or making a conscious effort to slow down—while in fact playing at exactly the same speed.

I was reminded of all this today when a friend tweeted a link to this article about an experiment on mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation emphasises awareness of the present moment. The research found that the meditation made time appear to pass more slowly for the participants, in a way that sounds very similar to what happened while I was practising. And maybe for similar reasons: focusing on the current moment as a meditation exercise, and focusing on the current note being played as a practice exercise, seem to me to involve exactly the same focus of attention, even if the mental state involved isn’t identical.

In any case it was fascinating to be able to witness my own sense of the passage of time changing over the course of a minute or so as I came out of intense practice mode.

Democracy without general elections

Here’s an idea which has been in my mind for a while. It’s a tentative idea, and may not be a perfect idea. It is, however an idea, and one which I’ve not seen anyone else suggest. It might even be a good one.

Here in Britain, and in many other countries which aspire to democracy, we elect our government by the familiar process of a general election. That is, every few years we elect, en masse, a new set of MPs whom we hope will represent us. The leader of the party with most MPs more or less automatically ends up being Prime Minister, regardless of whether the’re acceptable to the majority of voters or not. A few years later, we go through the process again.

This seems democratic, but has a number of problems and is open to various abuses. For example:

  • Parties can say one thing before the election (e.g. “There will be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS”) in order to get elected, then do something entirely different once in power (e.g. radically reorganise the NHS).
  • Parliament can be suddenly flooded with inexperienced politicians who, though well-meaning, are clueless about how to organise anything sensibly and therefore govern chaotically.
  • The make-up of parliament depends heavily on when the election is. Even worse, the election date could until recently also be manipulated by the Prime Minister to try to stay in power.
  • I believe the election result also depends heavily on which issues are prominent in the news at the time of the election. These may not actually be issues which will be important for the next five years. They might even be no more than the latest tabloid misinformation.
  • Once you elect a government, you’re more or less guaranteed to be stuck with them for for or five years regardless of how incompetent or otherwise awful they turn out to be. Even if they do the precise opposite of what you voted for, they’re there until the next general election.

In short, general elections seem like a good idea and we’re used to choosing governments that way, but they allow a lot of room for undemocratic manipulation.

But surely, to have democracy you need general elections?

I’m not so sure. Here’s my tentative suggestion for an alternative which I think is at least as democratic and possibly more so. Its main features are:

  • No general elections.
  • Instead, elect five MPs per fortnight. With 650 MPs, this takes five years to get through them all. So each MP is elected for a five-year term, and you vote every five years, when it’s your constituency’s turn to vote.
  • On arrival in parliament, each MP casts their vote for who should be Prime Minister, using a numbered preference system. That vote remains in force throughout that MP’s time in parliament or until they decide to change it (maybe subject to limits about how frequently or under what circumstances this can happen).
  • The Prime Minister remains Prime Minister for as long as the recorded votes of current MPs indicate that they are still acceptable to the majority. (That is: if the recorded votes were cast in an AV-style ballot, the Prime Minister would still win.)
  • To avoid a situation where a Prime Minister goes in and out of office every fortnight as new MPs replace old ones, there’s either a threshold number of votes above 50% that someone has to pass in order to gain office, or they have to be the winner for a specified length of time.

Now, I’m sure there will be pitfalls with this. There are with any voting system. But think of the possible advantages:

  • An unpopular government can’t indefinitely use its majority to force through measures which nobody wants. As soon as it does that, it starts losing MPs, who are replaced by ones who better reflect the current will of the voters.
  • Parties can’t say one thing before the election then do something different after the election, since there is always an election coming up.
  • The makeup of parliament can’t be skewed by whatever happened to be in the news on the day of the general election, because there isn’t one. (Maybe the result of each constituency election can be skewed by the news of the day, but this would ideally just mean that a whole range of issues were represented in parliament. Not just the news of the day, but five years’ worth of news.)
  • There are always experienced MPs in parliament—or at least, ones with nearly five years’ experience.
  • No prime minister feels permanently safe. As soon as they start behaving unacceptably, their support wanes and they risk being replaced.
  • Election dates can’t be manipulated to favour one party rather than another.
  • As soon as an issue becomes important, it’s likely that an MP will be elected who is concerned with that issue.

I can see a couple of risks, though:

  • The responsiveness that I’m trying to bring to the system might turn into short-term obsession with the latest dubious poll. Some thought would need to be given as to whether this is indeed the case, and whether there’s a way to avoid it.
  • Although an unpopular government immediately starts losing MPs, losing enough of them to lose power takes time. There might be situations in which a government is governing so badly that it needs to be replaced quickly, and it could be that a general election is the only way to do that. My hope, though, is that the system would make it difficult for extreme governments to arise.

Anyway there it is. Whether such a system could be made workable or not, I think it deserves thinking about.

Twitter does it again!

As you most probably know, I’ve been learning Norwegian for the last 23 months, largely by conversing with Norwegians on Twitter with the help of two grammar books and various dictionaries. It’s been a fascinating process. (I haven’t blogged properly about the process yet; maybe one day I will.)

What I didn’t quite realise when I first started was the three-for-the-price-of-one nature of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are really a collection of dialects stretching across Scandinavia, with no clear boundary between one language and the next. The borders between the countries determine which dialects are considered as belonging to which language, but that’s about as far as it goes. It turns out that learning one of the three languages means you can already understand substantial amounts of the other two if you’re prepared to do a bit of guesswork. Bilingual or trilingual conversations are common between the Scandinavians on Twitter: each participant tweets in their own languge, and generally has to explain only occasional words to the others.

Written Danish is so close to the Bokmål variety of Norwegian that Danish and Bokmål mostly just look like misspelt versions of each other. This isn’t very surprising, since  Bokmål is descended from written Danish. (Norwegian had no written form for several hundred years, while the country was under Danish rule.)

Swedish, however, is a lot less guessable, largely because the spelling is so different that Swedish words which are very close to the Norwegian equivalents can look quite different from them. But I’d like to be able to read Swedish without a struggle. I’m encountering more Swedish than I was, both on Twitter and elsewhere: for example I sometimes get Swedish replies to my Norwegian tweets or forum posts. Also one of my favourite authors, Tove Jansson, wrote her novels in Swedish, and I’d love to be able to read her actual words. Her writing is stunning even when translated, and I imagine it’s even more stunning in the original.

So I’ve been feeling the need to learn at least some Swedish. But I’ve no desire to laboriously plough through lots of information which simply repeats what I already know about the Scandinavian languages via Norwegian. What I’m really after is the differences from Norwegian. When is it safe to assume that the two languages work the same way? When isn’t it safe? Does that word which looks similar to a Norwegian one actually mean the same thing or not? It seems to me that learning Swedish this way is both less information to absorb, and a more integrated way of learning. Relating new information to what I already know makes it easier to remember and puts it in context, implying greater understanding than if it were random information.

So I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a book on Swedish written for Norwegians, rather than one for English-speakers.

Now, where does one get such a thing? Probably from a Norwegian publisher, at great expense . . .

Some of these thoughts came up in a recent conversation on Twitter between me, a Swede and a Norwegian. It was a good conversation which confirmed my feeling that getting material intended for Norwegians was probably the way to go. I wasn’t expecting what came next, though. Inger, the Norwegian, mentioned that she had a Swedish–Norwegian dictionary, from when she used to teach in a Swedish-speaking school in Finland. She said she had no further use for the dictionary, and that she’d therefore like to send it to me.

Human generosity is in my opinion a wonderful thing, and it’s no less wonderful when it comes from people you’ve never met. And in this case it came in a form which I’m happy to share in a blog post.

If you think Twitter is about nastiness, libel and boring minutiæ, then either you’re following the wrong tweeters or you’ve missed the point of the communities which form there.

Poem

timelessly touching time
then gone
in an instant
and present
forever

Dancing fingers

Last night, unable to sleep, I was wandering around YouTube encountering unfamiliar music. And so I encountered Anouar Brahem for the first time. He’s an oud player from Tunisia. I’d not heard of him before, which is probably bad as he seems to be one of the world’s most famous players of the instrument. But I think I may have heard of one of his pieces before, Astrakan Café. Here it is:

I don’t know about you, but what most strikes me about this piece is is the rhythmic sensitivity of the playing. What I mean is that he knows precisely how loud each note should be to bring the music alive, and does so brilliantly. Everything weighted just as it should be.

What happened when I tried to tweet about the music was slightly unexpected. I had quite a lot of difficulty in typing continuously and without making more typos than usual. I don’t think that was just because it was 3 am, since the same thing is happening today if I try to type while listening to the piece. It’s this: typing has its natural rhythm. The music has a different, competing rhythm. And whereas it’s normally possible to separate the two and just keep typing, in this case my fingers don’t want to do that. They try to dance along with the music. And they try so hard that my typing slows down to half speed, as I type little bursts of three or four characters whenever the music allows.

I’ve also found that Astrakan Café is quite difficult to get out of my head once I’ve heard it. So here’s another of his pieces, The Astounding Eyes of Rita, in case you’d prefer to have that stuck in your head instead (at least I can type to this one):