Grad school in music science – thoughts & advice

I recently read my friend Dave’s blog post called ‘Thoughts on doing a master’s in music science‘ and have recently asked to provide some advice on the topic myself so I figured, if it can be helpful at all, I can also share my thoughts and advice I have related to graduate studies in music science!

First, to situate myself and give some context to my opinions. I was always interested in the sciences and I had always played music. My original plan was to be an ophthalmologist, until I was given This is your brain on music by Dan Levitin as a high school graduation gift from my piano teacher. As soon as I realized that you could study the science of music, I changed my career aspirations. I started taking psychology courses to get a minor, choosing not to have a specific major in favour of a general music degree (if you chose a major, you weren’t allowed a minor in my programme). I carried out a research project in my fourth year (that failed miserably, btw) and started looking for master’s programmes in music science early. My goal was always academia so I knew that I would also be pursuing a PhD afterwards.

In the end, my master’s was a means to an end: it got me into a PhD programme on a studentship with a great supervisor. However, it was a default choice: it was the only programme that offered me a spot: the MSc in Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths in 2013-2014. It’s worth noting that leadership of the programme has changed since and courses went through many iterations and formats before I went through it and as far as I understand it still is in an effort to best serve the students in a fast-changing field – so take my experience with a grain of salt.

I wish many things could have been different during my master’s and they are just as much my fault as they are opinions I have about the programme and how it could be improved. I expected a research master’s instead of a taught master’s and found myself feeling like I was in undergrad all over again, learning many basic things all over again. The thing is, it’s extremely difficult to offer a programme for students of all backgrounds and make sure no one is left behind, so I definitely sympathize though at the time was much more critical. But instead of engaging with the material and challenging myself to learn more new things, I checked out. I could have used all that time to read so much literature or even pop science books in psychology, philosophy, science, etc. I could have invested so much more time in learning R.

At the same time, I’m not sure that I actually could have – I didn’t expect any culture shock moving from Canada to the UK but it happened and I wasn’t motivated. I talked to friends and family at home a lot and didn’t invest much in my time in the UK until I found out I’d be staying another three years. That’s when I started to really dig in more and I started to really love living in London.

Another thing I was unprepared for was what I at the time considered to be lower expectations of me. In Canada, the programmes I was applying for had a long list of expectations including helping develop lab code and protocol, staying on top of the literature, attending and presenting at lab meetings, supporting senior students in their research, attending conferences, etc. In my programme, I wanted to design my own research project (we’re given a list to choose from) but I was told that would be too difficult. I wanted to attend an international conference and was told it’d be too much work. I wanted to apply to PhD programmes (given a year-long master’s and early application deadlines in Canada, this meant starting applications about 6 weeks after starting the master’s) but was told it would be too much. I think it was genuine concern for my work load but I did go to that international conference and I did start a PhD a week after finishing my master’s. I didn’t end up needing to design my own research project because I was assigned the one I was interested in (there was only one) and the external supervisor on that project became my PhD supervisor. For me, I need to have a lot on my to-do list to be productive; there needs to be a lot asked of me to be motivated, whether that’s external expectations or things I expect of myself.

The best thing about my master’s programme was definitely the research project. After the disaster of my undergrad project, it was good to have another chance at implementing a research project from A to Z! I was lucky to have found a project that I was interested in given the MMB programme is so wide-ranging in terms of research topics. I did apply to programmes with more specific research projects that I wanted to be a part of but didn’t get accepted to the programme of study. This is because aside from the MMB master’s, there is no such thing as a “master’s in music science”. It’ll be a master’s in psychology, or music, or computer science, or music theory, or music technology, or neuroscience, etc. Labs will be affiliated with a faculty and a programme and this is what you have to be accepted to to join the lab. For me, one rejection was the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, where I wanted to join the MAPLE lab; my statistics background wasn’t considered strong enough for admission to the psychology programme. At McGill, my best shot at working with Stephen McAdams at CIRMMT was to apply to a master’s in composition, because I certainly wasn’t going to get into a music theory or music tech programme, but I didn’t get in. Looking at it right now, it seems quite clear that for these specific programmes, I had to invest far more time in either music or science to get into either, while Goldsmiths’ MMB programme allowed for a more balanced background. And this is something that has to be planned years in advance. That being said, it’s also possible to take a year to gather the extra credits you need to apply to the programme you want (though I think this applies more to psychology or computer science/engineering-based programmes than music ones like composition); I’d just say that this is a pretty big investment so try to have a good relationship with the person you’re trying to work with and be sure that the extra work you’re doing is what is required for admission.

So, given my experience, here’s some bits of advice I would have told the me from five years ago:

  • thoroughly research all programmes you’re going to apply to and speak with all your potential supervisors
  • look for a research topic that interests you and prepare yourself for admission to that academic programme; whether psychology- or music-based, look for a few labs that you can join via a programme that plays to your strengths
  • aim to make the most of your time familiarizing yourself with the literature of your field, developing research skills and building a network of people in the field
  • ask what is expected of you; find the programme that will challenge you without overextending you
  • invest in your community; take the time to get involved so that there’s something in your life other than school

There is so much more I could say about grad school but I’ll keep the focus on the master’s stage for now. I hope this is helpful! Feel free to reach out with any questions or suggestions on any topics I can expand on in this post!


Aging & Neural entrainment

I’m excited to say that the first first-author paper of my postdoc is out in NeuroReport: The impact of aging on neurophysiological entrainment to a metronome! It was the fastest submission process I have ever gone through (though admittedly, I have not been through that many), with only 10 days from submission to acceptance. The idea is to get new research out fast, and indeed fast it is! So if you’ve got any interesting findings that can be presented in a short paper, I’d recommend giving NeuroReport a go.

Now unfortunately this paper is not open access as we didn’t consider our findings important enough to pay the optional open access fee so I can’t post any full text versions of it online until at least a year from now. However, I would like to share our key findings as I have enjoyed reading about new research in blog format myself.

The concept of the study is very simple: people passively listen (as in watch Netflix while sounds are played at them) to a metronome ticking along at 2.5 Hz (400ms IOI) and 5 Hz (200ms IOI) and we record electroencephalography (EEG). The crucial variable in this study is age, where young listeners were an average of 20 years old and old listeners were an average of 63 years old. Neural entrainment to a beat has been shown in particular in work by Sylvie Nozaradan (i.e. 2011, 2012 and 2016). Her work demonstrated that our brains emit activity at the frequency of the musical beat (and its harmonics)! Honestly, I think that’s super cool. Brains are so interesting.

My lab replicated her 2016 paper which compared entrainment to nonsyncopated and syncopated rhythms, adding the age variable. They also had participants listen to isochronous ‘rhythms’, or more accurately, a metronome as a control – those are the results we report in the NeuroReport paper (currently moving towards submission on the rest). We looked at mean amplitudes of brain activity at the stimulus rate (2.5 Hz or 5 Hz) and the first three harmonics of each, comparing tempo, age groups and frequency in a mixed design ANOVA. There was a main effect of tempo and frequency, but not of age. However, age interacted with both tempo and frequency.

We found that the amplitude pattern across frequencies was different for older and younger adults. Younger adults have the largest amplitude at the stimulus rate and lesser amplitudes for the harmonics: SR > H1 > H2 = H3. In older adults, the pattern was SR = H1 > H2 < H3, with generally less difference between frequencies than seen in younger adults and overall lower amplitudes, though that latter effect was not statistically significant. In other words, a flatter amplitude profile. We interpret this pattern as showing that older adults’ automatic processing of a regular stimulus is both reduced and less specific. We contextualized these results with the inhibition theory of aging, which suggests that one of the hallmarks of cognitive aging is a reduction in the ability to inhibit unnecessary information – here, the higher harmonics.

However, turn the metronome into a rhythm and have participants actively engage with those rhythms and the age effect is slightly different… hopefully those results will be going into peer review by the end of the summer!

When academia isn’t so easy

Over the past month or so, I’ve gotten the worst part of academia on two pieces of work: reviews. As much as I understand and completely support why we have reviews, it doesn’t help the discouraging feeling you get when you’re reading through comments that pick apart your study and inevitably create more work for you to do on a project that feels like it’s been done to death already.

Of these two projects, one is much worse than the other, simply in the sense that it was part of my PhD. The original data collection happened something like four years ago. I’ve presented it at conferences, so it’s been analyzed and written up that way. I’ve written it up as part of my thesis, which was reviewed many times and then picked apart by examiners. Then I wrote it up as a paper and there’s still work to do. With this one in particular, I just want it to be done and over with already. Of course, the vast majority of the feedback is on the nose and helpful. Some of it isn’t, like being called an incompetent music theorist… I mean, they’re not wrong, my music theory days were years and years ago and the stimuli weren’t meant to follow voice leading rules, but still, word choice…

I was actually so discouraged at first that I thought even more seriously about my options outside of academia (which I’d been doing since my graduation trip to the UK in December). But, between the editor actually siding more with us than the reviewers on the harshest criticisms, my supervisor being supportive, and new projects being approved by the local ethics committee, the initial blow quickly dissipated. I’ve spent a couple of hours now working on my first response, and it isn’t so bad. I started with small details to get into it, and then started tackling the bigger issues. I’m feeling optimistic now, a couple more sit downs with it and I should have a first response finished up! Key word there being first. There will likely be a couple rounds between authors, then almost guaranteed another round with the reviewers…

What I learned here is that it’s okay to be discouraged. Just focus on something else and return to the thing that brought you down when you feel ready. There isn’t actually any rush. It’ll just take a bit longer to publish but at this point, I’d rather work on something when I’m motivated, a little bit later, than feeling shitty about it, right away. One of the advantages of academia is that there are lots of things to do and be working on at any given time, so you can just switch gears, as long as there isn’t a particular deadline coming up…

Pint of Science St. John’s

Pint of Science St. John’s

On Tuesday this week, I had the great pleasure of giving this month’s Pint of Science talk at Bridie Molloy’s in St. John’s! I had first hear of Pint of Science while in the UK but had never managed to go to an event because they always ended up sold out before I could get a ticket! Thankfully, this was not an issue here in St. John’s and after attending one in September (talks happen monthly here), I asked if it would be possible to give a talk myself, thinking that music science might be a topic of interest for the general public.

I was absolutely thrilled (though nervous on the spot!) at the great turnout to my talk – thanks to everyone who came out to hear me speak a little bit about the work that goes on in music perception and that went on through my PhD. I was also super happy to chat with Fred and Krissy from CBC’s St. John’s Morning Show on Monday morning and Paul Émile d’Entremont for Radio-Canada which aired on Tuesday (find 7:50 on Tuesday Nov 27) and yesterday Atefeh, the organizer of Pint of Science MUN and myself spoke with Cameron Kilfoy from Kicker News for a print piece about PoS & a bit about my talk. So the media coverage has been awesome and I’m definitely looking forward to bringing music science to the community more as I keep working here at MUN. I think it’s so important for researchers to be able to share what we do with the general public, as in many cases, we are funded by public money and so this is why events like PoS are so important to support and participate in! In my field, it’s so much fun anyway because everyone can relate to music so there’s always an interesting conversation to be had!

So, to give a brief summary of what I talked about for those of you who couldn’t come out to the talk itself:

I wanted to give a little introduction to the scope for research in music science so I talked a little bit about a couple of very different but all music-based research angles. For example, how some people are digging into the question of why we have music in the first place. Every human culture we know of – ever – has music, so it must have some crucial role or it wouldn’t be so pervasive. I’d say the most convincing theory is that of social bonding – the act of making music together, or listening or moving to music together forms a connection that no other medium can achieve – and this has been crucial to the formation of human groups in sizes far larger than almost any other animal on the planet! In the world of health care, music is used with dementia patients as a stimulant to bring them out of catatonic states while it is used with Parkinson’s patients to help them walk more steadily. In the world of performance and creativity research, we can look at performers’ brains while they play music from a score and when they improvise and see how those two types of performances differ! In computational musicology, the basic idea is that if we can make a computer do something closely enough to how a human does it, then we’re understanding something about how the brain works – so we build computer models to find a melody, to predict what’s going to come next, to identify emotion, to find the beat, to separate audio into all the right instruments, etc. I say we here because I dipped into this world in my PhD, merging it with what I would say is my main sub-field: music perception, or how our brains process and make sense of music. This includes pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre, phrasing, melody identification, and much more! I’m also really interested in how musicians’ perceptions are different from people who don’t have any formal musical training.

Clearly, there’s so much to talk about! I focused on musical expectations – the predictions we make for what’s going to come next based on what we’ve heard before. Now, why do we care about predictions in music? Good question! Prediction is adaptable – you want to be able to tell what’s likely to happen in the near future because if you’re walking in the woods and a bear goes from chill to growling, you want to run before it’s got its teeth in you! There’s a theory called predictive coding that says that the brain is all based on predictions – we learn patterns from the world, make models, make predictions, and update those models and predictions from what we see in the world. In a less dangerous context, predicting words in conversation helps fill in blanks in a noisy environment when you can’t hear every word super clearly. In music, there’s no danger at all and with only twelve different possible notes (if we ignore octaves), it’s a super controlled environment that is very highly patterned. Plus, it’s super widespread – I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who had never heard music. So, we’re all exposed to it, it’s relatively restricted compared to the real world, and it’s safe – so it’s a really great tool to study prediction and expectations.

On that note, we did a little study where I played a tonic triad (first, third and fifth notes of the major scale) and then another note that the audience rated as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with thumbs up or thumbs down – or thumbs middle (?) if the note was in between. This is something that everyone can do, no matter if they have formal musical training or not and it was clear from the audience’s reactions that we all know what sounds good and bad in a particular musical context. This is called the tonal hierarchy – notes in the tonic triad sounds really good, notes from the scale sound decent, but notes not even the scale sound very wrong (especially the tritone!). This knowledge reflects the fact that we’ve all learned the patterns in music and we can make predictions about what’s going to come next – generally we expect good notes and bad notes are surprising. It turns out we can imitate this learning and these predictions using a computer model – it’s called IDyOM (information dynamics of music; it’s free) and it has loads of applications in understanding how we perceive music, including melody, time, style, culture, emotion, complexity and now it’s being developed for harmony too. So, part of the idea here is that if we can explain lots of music perception with one idea – prediction – maybe this idea that prediction is how the brain works has some merit.

I also talked a little bit about how we can see expectations and surprise in the brain using EEG. When we compare the signal made by a surprising note to a signal made by an unsurprising note, we find a difference between the two brain signals that is proportional to how surprising that note (or harmony) is. For example, a study by Stefan Koelsch and colleagues showed that an N6 chord in the middle of a chord sequence created a smaller difference than an N6 chord at the end of a chord sequence. That’s because music generally ends on the tonic (Western tonal and popular music that is) and so not having that closure is a huge violation – on the other hand, N6 chords do exist in music so while they are somewhat surprising, they’re not that big of a violation of our internalized Western musical syntax.

I think that pretty much sums it up, it definitely went by much quicker than I originally thought, what with being in front of people making me talk faster and forgetting to say things here and there, but I think it was well enjoyed and there were some really interesting questions and discussion had afterwards – over a pint of course!

Better reading = better writing

Last week, I finally returned to a reading strategy I’d developed during my PhD and it felt like I was suddenly working at efficiency level ten thousand! I hesitated for awhile to begin using this strategy again because it requires lots of paper, and trying very hard to be environmentally friendly equates with minimal printing. However – I have decided here that the benefits of efficient working and relative small amounts of printing in the grand scheme of things outweigh the cost in paper.

My strategy is rather simple, but I have found it works incredibly well:

I print the things I want to read. I have a pen and a notebook with me, and usually do a stack of 3-4 papers at a time. I underline relevant things on my first read, and then take notes on the paper in my notebook. I mark the authors, the year, and a short version of the title if it doesn’t fit on a single line. I take note of things like the method, the results, the take-home message, any good summaries of concepts, references to check out, and anything else I think might be relevant in future writing. A paper typically takes up half a page to a page of bullet-form notes.

That’s it! Super simple, but huge difference in efficiency!

I think there are two things that make this super useful for me: 1) the act of writing things down helps me remember the contents of a paper; 2) it helps me look for the paper I’m thinking of when writing (i.e. I’ll know it was about streaming and there was EEG involved – I have good image memory so I’ll tend to remember if it was on a right or left page and maybe what colour pen it was written in but not the author until I find it in my notebook). I still look back at notes from my PhD when I’m writing and now I’ve gone back to continue growing the ‘database’.

I spent a total of a whole work day last week on taking notes on half a dozen papers and reading a few more. Then, I went to write the introduction section of a paper and it took me an hour only. Last month, I wrote a few intros and they took me about a day each, and they’re all the same length or shorter than the one I wrote last week. Reading on a screen is okay, but I find things stick much more easily when reading on paper, and taking notes helps even more. In the end, the same amount of time is spent on getting that introduction done, but with printing and taking notes, the information is kept long-term and can be reused, as opposed to when I read on-screen.

I do think carefully about whether or not a paper is important enough to print so I’m not wasting paper and ink if it’s not necessary. Once we run out of this paper, I’ll aim to buy 100% recycled paper. But I do intend to keep up this reading and writing strategy!

On that note, I’ve got a paper I’m going to go read!

Ethno & cognitive musicology

Yesterday evening I attended a lecture organized by the MMaP research group here at MUN, and it was striking in a number of ways.  The talk was entitled “Lament of the Twenty-First Century: Posthumous Aurality and the Sounds of Refugee Deathwork in Turkey” and was given by Dr. Denise Gill from Stanford University.

1) The first thing that struck me about this lecture was how different it was from what I’m used to.  Talk I attend have an introduction, a methods section, a results section, and a discussion section (generally – if not, there are usually some mention of studies and results somewhere).  Because the abstract mentioned more about sound and also mentioned affect, I thought it could be sort of related to the work on musical emotion I’ve done (published here).  Not even close.  The “findings” section that I kept waiting for never came.  Instead, the talk was a series of shared experiences and the sharing of a different epistomological approach to ethnomusicology in that geographical area of the world (the Mediterranean and Aegean seas and western coastal Turkey).  This talk challenged me to think differently about music research and how to approach listening.  If you’re curious, the talk will be uploaded to MMaP’s YouTube channel at some point, as all of their series talks.

2) Speaking of thinking differently about music research, this talk highlighted to me the importance of including ethnomusicologists in our field of research.  Though there is some cross-cultural work being done, which is awesome, there is definitely room for improvement and, based on this talk and the ethnomusicologists I know here in Newfoundland, a huge benefit to their input.  I think the biggest strength they bring is to always question *how* people listen, in the context of their culture and daily lives.  I’m sure music psychologists are not blind to the fact that people from different cultures will hear the same piece of music differently, but why that is or exploring those differences just don’t generally feel like a priority in the field.  I think addressing this gap will actually strengthen the research we already do, improving perceptual models and theories so that they can generalize to contexts beyond Western listeners.

It’s not going to be easy and it’s probably going to be messy, but I think it’s important to think about and I’m looking forward to having more conversations with ethnomusicologists in the future and potential collaborations!

Politics on Tinder

Tinder probably isn’t the first place you’d think of as a forum of political discussion, but in the week or so that I was using it when I arrived in St. John’s, one conversation I had quickly turned political and I’m still thinking about it.

I was asked what my political orientation was, because he didn’t want anyone ‘too far on the left’.  I consider myself center left, but I suppose that’s not quite accurate, based on the response I got… I say center left because though I strongly believe in the responsibility of the state towards its citizens, basic human rights and equality for all humans, I also recognize that in this world you need to make money to make these things happen so you’ve got to have a strong economy.  I feel like that’s a balanced approach, but perhaps I am wrong?  I gave some examples of countries I admired, feeling that would explain my political views better than a label – I named New Zealand, Scotland and the Nordic nations as nations to aspire to.

I then received this (paraphrased) question: “So do you believe that the state should support waves of foreign immigrants without supporting its own people?”

To which I responded with something along the lines of believe that everyone should be treated with humanity and a question along the lines of “Do you believe innocent victims of violent wars should stay home and die?”, stating this was an unfair question, as his was.  Of course, I received no answer and was promptly unmatched.  Ok, fine.

My issue with the exchange is the following: why can’t people who disagree on things, in this case political views, not just have a conversation?  I acknowledge that I was extremely unlikely to change his mind and him mine, but I have had rational conversations with people of differing political beliefs and they’re very interesting.  They’re rare, to be sure, but so very interesting because they offer a different point of view, which may either strengthen your own and improve your arguments supporting your own opinion (not to be argumentative, but if you’re going to have an opinion I think there should be a good reason and you need to be able to defend it soundly), or perhaps even change your point of view somewhat.  There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind if you’ve been presented with new information.  In fact, I owe my newfound appreciation for making money to one of my Clipper crew-mates from many a conversation had at the helm of the boat.  I think it’s a bit more idealistic.  I still think Canada needs to be smart about how it makes its money and soon give up on the fossil fuel industry to protect our planet, but I know there’s going to be a transition period.  It just can’t happen overnight.  Now unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’s happening any time soon which I find worrying but that’s a whole other topic.

Another thing I struggle with is the dichotomy between not wanting to force opinions on others or have others’ opinions forced on me and the desire to see change.  If we all keep our political opinions to ourselves, nothing is ever going to change because there’s no exchange of ideas.  We’re absolutely all entitled to our own opinions and we often complain about politics and the government and so on, but if we don’t talk, nothing will change, so we have no right to complain.  I feel like it’s a catch-22…

I hope that the answer is conversations.  In none of the conversations that I mentioned was anyone saying their opinion was absolute – we discussed issues relevant to the conversation topic and essentially shared why we believed what we did.  Rationally.  And it was productive.  How can we spread that kind of approach?  Tinder certainly isn’t the platform that’s for sure – nor any online-based platform I think.  It’s so much easier to walk away or get upset when there isn’t a person right in front of you having the conversation.  Thoughts?