Category Archives: psychology

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.

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):

Memory incident

Recently I had occasion to use one of the public computers in my local library. At one time this was a regular occurrence because I didn’t have internet access at home, but now it’s only something I do very occasionally.

The system is: you log in to the system with your reader number and passcode, and then get an hour’s use of the computer.

I typed in my reader number, then was surprised and horrified to realise that I had no idea what my passcode was. But I remembered from a previous occasion that it had been possible to log in as a guest, so I went to the desk to ask if I could do that.

The library assistant looked rather helplessly at me, said something about not having enough access to the system to do anything, and suggested I try entering my birthday as the passcode. I knew that my birthday most certainly wasn’t the passcode. But she also told me that the system didn’t have any limit on how many times I could enter the wrong code. I wouldn’t end up getting locked out if I tried everything I could think of.

What I knew, though, was that in the days when I had known my passcode, I’d primarily remembered it not by the digits themselves or some fancy mnemonic for them, but by the pattern of keystrokes needed to type them. I’d remembered them pretty much like a fingering pattern on an instrument.

I went back to my seat and stopped trying to remember the passcode. I typed in my reader number, thought about where my finger should probably go for the first digit of the passcode, then let my fingers type a sequence of keys that felt right on the keyboard. I clicked OK.

Immediately, on the first attempt, I found myself logged in. The key to remembering my passcode had been to stop trying to consciously remember it, and to let my fingers follow the pattern that they always had done when typing it before. The code wasn’t still programmed into my brain, but the movements for typing it were still programmed into my fingers.

That’s what musicians are talking about when they mention kinaesthetic memory.

Connections

It’s all connected

Finally—after rather a long break in which all I really did was keep the vocabulary warmed up—I seem to have resumed the Norwegian-learning. Still the same technique: interact on Twitter in Norwegian, and learn whatever vocabulary and grammar I find I need in doing that. One or two people have made startlingly positive and very encouraging comments to the effect that I’ve been learning quickly.

I’ve never felt I was learning it from scratch, though. For a start, I learnt German at school; Norwegian is another Germanic language, so there are lots of connections. If you know that eigentlich and wichtig in German mean  actually and important for example, it’s not so difficult to remember that egentlig and viktig in Norwegian mean really and important. In fact it’s a pretty fair bet (so far) that if changing –ig at the end of a Norwegian word produces something similar to a German one ending in -ich, the meaning will be roughly the same. Changing –lig to English –ly often works, too: for example nemlig means namely among other things. It’s all about connections.

These connections come up all the time. For example, it puzzled me for ages why Norwegian uses the word og for and. It’s clearly nothing like and or its German equivalent und. Neither is it like the French or Latin word et. It seems to be out on a limb, apart from being a bit like och which I happen to know is the Swedish version.

Except . . . well there’s og and there’s òg. They’re closely connected in meaning:  òg is an emphatic word for also. (The usual word for also is også.) Also isn’t so far from and. Maybe there’s a clue here . . .

I haven’t learnt Dutch, but I can understand odd snippets by relating them to German. Often the key is to replace a k with ch. So when yesterday I was looking at the Dutch word ook in a tweet, I found myself wondering whether it was equivalent to German auch and meant also. It does. And then suddenly og made perfect sense. Of course it’s nothing like and or und, because that’s not where it goes. It belongs with the German for also. Norwegian og = Swedish och = German auch. Suddenly it fits nicely into a pattern.

I visualise this as a sort of network with branches and interconnections. I hadn’t been able to see the connection because I’d wanted to attach og to the wrong branch. When I found the right one, the connection was obvious.

Staying connected

When I learn a new word—unless it’s a short one with no obvious connections to anything else—I try to learn not just the word, but its connections to other words too. This is a bit different from how we mostly learnt at school, where in most cases a new word was simply a new word which came as a single unit of information.

Take for example bemerkelsesverdig, which came up a few months ago. I learnt this group together:

  • å merke: to mark, notice
  • å bemerke: to remark
  • -else: ending used to make a noun from a verb
  • ei bemerkning: a remark (I had to learn this to avoid thinking it would be en bemerkelse)
  • verdig: worthy
  • bemerkelsesverdig: remarkable, noteworthy
  • I should also have learnt verd(-et), “(the) worth”, but didn’t think of it at the time.
  • I noted, but didn’t put on my vocabulary list, that be- at the start of Norwegian verbs seems to do pretty much the same thing that it does with English ones.

This has several advantages:

  • Learning all the bits of a word (morphemes) means you’re half way to learning lots of other words too which use the same bits.
  • You mostly don’t end up learning long obscure words before short frequently-used ones. A long obscure word is likely to be made up of several short frequently-used ones, which you learn straight away.
  • You start to get a feel for how Norwegian words work.
  • Sometimes you pick up little bits of grammar from seeing how the words are made.
  • The words fit into a logical pattern, which makes them easier to remember.
  • At least for me, the connections are interesting in themselves. Information you’re interested in is much easier to remember than things you feel neutral about.

Thinking back to when I first learnt a foreign language, I remember being encouraged to make connections between words. Guessing was not just allowed but encouraged. What does the unfamiliar word look as if it might mean? What English word might it be similar to? Have a guess! The guess might be right or wrong, of course . . . so you have to check. If you were right, a theory forms about how the language works. If you were wrong, you learn that the theory behind your guess didn’t work. Either way, you’ve learnt something.

I love these connections. They’re one of the things I most love about languages.

Disconnected

German was one thing. There was however another subject at school, which I absolutely hated: history. The school version had two basic problems.

  • It seemed not to be about anything remotely interesting or edifying. Most of the time it was about people killing each other or perpetrating other acts of inhumanity, mostly for rather silly reasons. (I’d hoped it would be about things like the history of science, or how archaeology works.) This made it incredibly depressing. There was enough cruelty in the world already, without having to hear about previous centuries of it as well.
  • I found it next to impossible to remember the information. It was a mass of names which all sounded the same, and dates which may just as well have been random numbers. There was no logic to it; no pattern of connections.

The second of those is the relevant one: I couldn’t absorb history because I couldn’t make the connections.

Not everyone might instinctively make such connections when learning a language, though. I was actively encouraged to do so. But I can imagine someone thinking entirely differently when they begin: “Don’t guess, because you might be wrong.  Look it up first, or ask the teacher. If you’re wrong, you’ll be setting yourself back by learning the wrong meaning. Since it’s a completely different language from your own, you must put thoughts of your own language out of your head. If you try to make connections they’ll just get in the way and mislead you.” That seems logical on the surface: if you’re going to learn something, you want to learn it right. But it takes away what I think is the most important tool for remembering things: connecting them to other things. It also, I think, stops you freely applying your intelligence to what you’re learning.

Wondering

And so today I found myself wondering about these two opposite approaches, and about whether they might be reflected in how easy or difficult someone finds it to learn a language. Do different people gravitate towards one or the other approach, and find it easy or difficult as a result, or is it simply a matter of some people finding some types of information easier to connect together than other types? Or are some people able to remember random-seeming information without needing a pattern, even? I don’t know, but I find it an interesting question. As for me, I’ll continue making all the connections I can.

It didn’t work!

Somehow, I never expected that it would. I’m talking about National Blog Posting Month, which I dutifully blogged about at the time.

Bullying myself into an activity was never going to work. So you can rest assured that in the writing of this post and the previous one, no cruelty to the author was involved. 😉

And whether I write more posts will depend almost entirely on whether I feel like it, and whether think I have anything to write about.