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?

Back in Newfoundland

Hello everyone!  A lot has happened since I last wrote on my blog and I am finally settled into a new chapter of my life for the next couple of years, which will allow me to write more regularly and spend a little bit of time updating my website.

For a quick summary, since I last posted in June, I drove across Canada with the Eastbound Peace Bus (I wrote a little reflection on that experience here) and more recently stepped down from the role of co-chair.  I got to see all my closest high school and university friends on my journey from Victoria to Halifax, and then from Halifax to Ottawa, where I spent some time with family before making the big move to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I will be for at least the next two years!

It’s been a whirlwind month so far, starting a new job as a postdoc in the Cognitive Aging and Auditory Neuroscience Lab (CAANLab), moving into a new place, reconnecting with old friends and catching up with faculty who may now be potential new colleagues!  I’m wrapping up some PhD work while already hitting the ground running with a new study and analysis of EEG data – it’s about time I get to explore the neuroscience side of music science and I’m super excited to run a number of studies.  My work here will essentially extend our knowledge of music perception to older listeners.  Mostly due to convenience, the vast majority of music perception literature is about younger adults, with very little known about music perception in older adults (though Andrea Halpern has done the most work in this).

I had been waiting for my Psychomusicology article to be published before posting this update to have some cool news to share, only to find out yesterday that it had actually been published in MARCH and I had no idea because I was at sea/in China… I checked their website recently, but only as far as the July and September issues since I figured it wasn’t out yet.  At least now I’m proud to say that I have published my first peer-reviewed article in a music science journal and you can check it out here!  I had an exciting moment a few weeks ago when I saw on Google Scholar that I had also been cited!  Now that the ball is rolling, I’ve got a few more publications in the works and look forward to all the exciting research coming in the next few years.

Selfie day!

Selfie day!

Facebook told me this morning that it is Selfie Day today – and though I am not usually one for selfies, I decided that today was a good day to share for a few reasons:

  • This morning I sent in the majority of my corrections to my supervisor for feedback; the bulk of the work is done, all that is left is some analysis on data that is still being generated (thank you to my lovely friends who took my mind off it yesterday with some time at the Board Game cafe, I was majorly stressing out!)
  • I visited Majestic Beach with a colleague and friend from work at the garden centre, which was a great day all around – I’m so glad I got to see another part of this beautiful island!
  • Tomorrow the rest of the Peace Bus leadership team will join me in Victoria and we being final preparations for the Eastbound Peace Bus journey that begins on Sunday!

It feels like another turning point, the end of something and the beginning of something else.  My thesis is slowly moving behind me, and I’m still reflecting and learning from my Clipper experience (I’m sure I’ll continue to for some time still – also note I still proudly wear our lovely orange team fleece -REPRESENT!- and I’m thinking of them as they prepare to race to Derry-Londonderry).  At the same time, I’m preparing to launch into a new kind of challenging adventure as part of a leadership team taking a group of Canadian youth to explore this vast country of ours, with all its beauty and its flaws.  Check out our Facebook Page to follow the adventure!

With my last post for several weeks still, I’d like to close with a huge thank you to everyone I’ve met in Victoria, who have made the last few months an incredible time to explore, recharge, and come home!  I’m also going to jump on the Sapiens band wagon and highly recommend you read it!!  Sapiens (and its sequel Homo Deus) by Yuval Noah Harari are ‘a brief history of humankind’ and ‘of the future’ respectively, and are absolutely challenging, mind-boggling and an important read right now as change is increasingly fast-paced.  Also, if you’re into music science, check out Finn Upham’s new podcast called So Strangely, featuring recent research in music science – they’re a great listen!

That’s it for now, I’m off to pack to the sound of music science, and tomorrow the Peace Bus adventure begins!