Tag Archives: music

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):

Virtuoso balalaika

I haven’t posted any music here for ages, so I thought I’d remedy that.

Many musical instruments are associated with a particular style of music. Sometimes it’s an uncomplimentary style and an unfair association. For example, in Britain most people unfamiliar with baroque music think a recorder is a children’s instrument, normally played badly and out of tune.

Sometimes the association is so strong that virtually all the music you hear on an instrument is in that one style.

But it seems to me that pretty well any musical instrument  which actually works reliably can become a virtuoso instrument. Sooner or later, someone will come along who’s enthusiastic enough about the instrument not to be satisfied with just playing in the one obvious style with the few obvious techniques. They’ll try to push it as far as they can manage to go.

I’ll freely admit that I’d never heard of Alexei Arkhipovsky until I came across him by chance on YouTube a few months ago. Think for a moment what kind of music you expect to hear coming out of a balalaika. I suspect the word strumming may well be in your mind. Well, have a listen to Balalaika Amok:

A piece in a more Eastern style, appropriately enough titled Eastern:

His version of Mission: Impossible (this is in a rather similar style to Balalaika Amok):

And last but not least, The Barrel Organ, which is effectively a long cadenza containing favourite bits of Paganini and so on. This uses a whole collection of techniques including harmonics and what on a violin would be called left hand pizzicato. It lasts about twelve minutes, but is well worth listening to in full:

A music-and-science blog

The two things I find the most immensely interesting and continually impressing are music and neuroscience . . . Philosophy and politics are my second loves.

Science and music often go together—many of the best amateur musicians who I know are GPs, for example—but they aren’t all that often explicitly put together in blog form.

Today I finally got round to having a look at Science with Moxie, which is Princess Ojiaku‘s blog on the Scientific American Blog Network. If you’re interested in both science and music you should probably have a look. And if you’re interested in the science (not solely neuro-) of music you should definitely have a look.

The most recent post, for example,  describes brain-imaging experiments designed to look at the brain’s processing of words, pitch and rhythm. All three elements are present in both singing and speech, so (for example) is there a difference between the brain’s processing of pitch in speech and its processing of musical pitch? It also includes a nice video illustrating the way in which a fragment of speech, when repeated, begins to sound like a fragment of song in which the individual notes are so well defined that a listener can sing the tune back.

I’m tempted to list more of the posts but really, the best way for you to find out what’s there is to go and see for yourself . . . which I hope you will.

Just don’t do it

Don’t make your web page play unsolicited music at me. Ever.

  1. It slows down loading of the page. For ages, sometimes.
  2. I want to listen to music when I choose, not when your site chooses.
  3. It’s your choice of music, not mine. Musical tastes vary widely.
  4. If it’s any good, it’s distracting: I’ll listen to it rather than read your site.
  5. If it isn’t any good, then I want to make it stop as soon as possible, so rather than reading your site, I’ll be frantically looking all over the page for anything that looks like a stop button. And then I’ll be trying to ensure that the music doesn’t play on subsequent visits.
  6. If I can’t find a way to permanently disable the music, then I’ll never visit the page again.
  7. If I do find a way to permanently disable the music, then other parts of your site may also not work when I visit, because they’ll have been disabled too. See below. Most likely I’ll have disabled Flash for your site, or I’ll have used the content blocker and it may have blocked more than I intended. And I’m pretty sure that if your site automatically plays music at visitors, it’ll be full of stuff that only works with Flash.
  8. Unless it’s a site I’m especially strongly motivated to visit, I probably won’t actually stay long enough to find out whether 5 or 6 applies anyway. I’ll leave within two or three seconds of the music starting. (There are usually a horrible few seconds more though, during which the browser takes its time over going back to the previous address and continues playing the music.)

Regarding no. 7: the videos on my own Tumblr site mysteriously stopped working for several weeks. All that appeared was a blank space where each video was supposed to be. I thought it was a bug in Opera, or in Tumblr’s template. Music player links didn’t work either: just an empty space.

Eventually I discovered by chance what had happened, when I wanted to give someone a link to one of the mysteriously-vanished videos. It wasn’t a bug at all. I opened the Tumblr post for editing, that being the only way to get at the link address. I copied the link and pasted into in the address bar, to go to YouTube and check it was the right video. But instead of being taken to YouTube, I got a message from the browser’s content blocker. It  said I was about to go to a blocked page, and asked if I really wanted to proceed.

What had happened? Weeks before, I’d visited a page with some kind of player on it which refused to be stopped. Normally the offending player is in the sidebar somewhere and there’s a stop button. Well this player either didn’t have one, or refused to respond to it.  In my efforts to silence the damn thing, I had inadvertently blocked all YouTube videos on all tumblr.com sites from being displayed—including ones on my own site. I’d intended simply to block YouTube videos on that particular page.

Remember John Cage’s silent piece 4’33” ? He once claimed that four minutes and thirty-three seconds was the average length of a Muzak Corporation record, as played in, I think, “shops and elevators”. He suggested that 4’33”  should be used instead. Somehow I think that if he were still alive he’d be very happy about the idea of applying the same principle to web pages.

Please, if you’re going to put music on the page, do it in such a way that I choose whether to listen to it, it doesn’t start until I press Play, and it stops when I press Stop.