What Neuroscientists Need to Know Before They Do Research with Jazz Musicians

I went to jazz school before stumbling into cognitive neuroscience, having earned a BMus in guitar. I’m not sure who is more surprised by this apparently unlikely trajectory: scientists or jazz musicians! Sometimes we act as though there is some magical barrier in the brain that separate topics like language from music (or tool-use from dance, or arithmetic from weaving, or…). I can’t see why music isn’t more or less apropos to cognitive neuroscience than any other human pursuit.

Anyways, there are actually many amphibious musician-scientists around, but in my anecdotal experience, the majority seem to be classically trained. This of course isn’t a bad thing, but there’s a troubling aspect to this homogeneity of musical backgrounds among researchers. First and foremost, the diversity of traditions, communities, and aesthetics known collectively as jazz are desperately untapped given their potential as a domain for understanding human minds, brains, and bodies. Moreover, I sometimes worry that jazz is misrepresented by the scant literature in which it does figure—often as some kind of fun and zany cousin to classical music. Actually, the systematic, improvisational, and interactional aspects of jazz make it uniquely well-equipped for cognitive science, and not just the musical kind. Jazz covers a variety of skills and strategies central to domain-general human learning, ingenuity, and collaboration, and its form and structure make it highly adaptable to the laboratory (um, well, at least as adaptable as all our other non-ecological versions of stuff). 

Finally, jazz is Black American Music. It embodies a history and continuing practice that exists outside of the Western institutional tradition, which dominates psychology and brain sciences to this day, despite calls to address our problem with narrow samples and ethnocentric assumptions. That isn’t to say that jazz hasn’t maintained a close and syncretic relationship with classical music, and it’s seen its own forms of gentrification (particularly in post-secondary settings), so recruiting jazz musicians won’t guarantee you a diverse participant pool. But in terms of rhythm, function, and form, jazz is a great place to start exploring human capacities you just won’t find in most classical music environments.

So, what do neuroscientists (or psychologists, cognitive scientists, etc.) need to know about jazz and the musicians or audience who produce it? I won’t rehash what is readily available on the origins and current scene, but there are a few major points I would like to cover.

Continue reading What Neuroscientists Need to Know Before They Do Research with Jazz Musicians

Your Online Sample May Be Mostly Gamers

Along with most of the rest of the world, in-person testing for me stopped abruptly in March, 2020. I was about to launch piloting for the final project of my PhD, an electroencephalography experiment studying timing and speech perception – a logistical impossibility in locked down London, both then and now. It was a quick and painful pivot to online behavioural work via Gorilla, but I have to say that it’s been a lot of fun. It’s hard to imagine going back to onerous recruitment, booking people in, taking out cash advances that will take the university months to reimburse me… Online testing is fast, convenient, and easy to implement in general. But there have also been some difficulties, one of which I would like to bring to light, especially for those of us who research speech, music, or run multisensorial and/or temporally dynamic tasks.

Continue reading Your Online Sample May Be Mostly Gamers

The Switch: My Time as a Left-handed, Right-handed Guitarist

I am left-handed, and grew up studying classical flute, which is generally played the same way regardless of the hand you use to write. But when I was eighteen, I decided to finally drop the flute (figuratively), and learn guitar. But the only guitar around for me to play was a $100 Fender Squire, and it was a righty. At this point, I was mulling over what I was going to major in at university and didn’t suspect that any new musical pursuits would amount to much, so I didn’t think twice about starting out on the wrong hand.

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It turned out that I really liked guitar, and threw myself into it. I took an extra year off before starting school, and in that time used my classical background to catch up on improvisational theory. I ingratiated myself to the local jazz department, who admitted me on the basis of my “potential”. So, I was suddenly majoring in jazz guitar and not too long after, gigging around town. Fast forward one music degree, and I felt stymied. There were some aspects of playing that just wouldn’t come to me, easy or hard. For example, funky strumming—make that any kind of strumming. I could comp pianistically and pluck with my fingers, but the loose, yet controlled, percussive movements required for funk seemed out of reach. My right arm just didn’t want to move that way.

This is a performance of a tune I wrote and arranged for my graduation recital, about 5 years after I started playing guitar.

Continue reading The Switch: My Time as a Left-handed, Right-handed Guitarist

Cross-Cultural Validity is a Philosophy of Science Problem

In 2010, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan produced an insightful, if damning paper exposing the extreme ethnic, cultural, geographical, and social class biases that pervade most psychology experiments. The authors estimate that virtually all participants are ‘Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries’, or ‘WEIRD’. As the authors point out, nobody wants to publish in the ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students’, but even today, few scientists have the grounds to claim their findings generalise across socio-cultural-experiential barriers. And despite a somewhat non-establishment disciplinary foundation, music science is just as vulnerable to selectively representative samples as the next field. Nonetheless, diversifying the subject pool is increasingly recognised as a problem, and one that won’t go away on its own.

But what about the rest of the scientific process? In scientific experiments, we often force choices, or attempt to reveal contrasting features between supposedly objective categories – but do our designs reflect something factual, a physical constant, or a belief we hold because, well, everyone else we know believes the same thing? Does the research question itself reflect a universal human experience, or just ours? I don’t think that diversity in the recruitment process is enough. Rather, considering scientific questions from another cultural (or experiential) lense permits the space and detachment we need to determine what is truly ‘objective’ – or, at least, what amounts to a shared subjectivity across human societies.

Note to Abel Tasman and crew: the Maori are not here to jam with you

This isn’t just an issue for the so-called ‘soft science’ of psychology. Take the concept of species. It doesn’t sound like a topic that biologists would do much philosophizing over, until you examine the term in its historical context, and adopt a data-driven, rather than ‘common-sense’ approach. As Darwin put it, the status of ‘species’ is “one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other”, a sentiment that has only gained credibility as time passes, according to the Smithsonian:

The idea of a species is ultimately a human construct. With advancing DNA technology, scientists are now able to draw finer and finer lines between what they consider species by looking at the genetic code that defines them. How scientists choose to draw that line depends on whether their subject is an animal or plant; the tools available; and the scientist’s own preference and expertise.

By the way, this also applies to hard sex/gender and racial categories; in short, they can be useful—alternatively, destructive, and sometimes deadly—for quotidian communication, and capture or drive many of our social structures and group identities. But these classifications are far from universal or elemental, and should be handled with care in a scientific setting, particularly if you don’t take factors such as culture, experience-driven neuroplasticity (e.g., a lifetime of performing the social role of ‘female’ may unsurprisingly make your brain look more ‘female’), and epigenetics into account when explaining between-group differences. And let’s not forget the effects an experimenter can introduce by unintentionally treating her subjects differently, as a result of her unconscious bias and/or personal stake in a specific experimental outcome.

Anyways. Music science. Continue reading Cross-Cultural Validity is a Philosophy of Science Problem

Applying to Grad School in Europe: A Guide for Canadians (and/or People Who Like Music and Science)

Things have been notably quiet on the blogging front, which is par for the course in PhD-land. But since I’m currently re-installing MATLAB, now is the perfect time to share a few thoughts on applying to and funding graduate school, right? This is something to which I conspired approximately eleven months ago and now it’s seasonally relevant again! Excellent.

Graduating from CambridgeThere is already a lot of really good information on choosing a topic, a city, a department, and a supervisor out there, so I am mainly going to address my own experience as a Canadian making it work in the UK. I also touch upon the unique situation of being someone with a bachelor’s degree in music looking at interdisciplinary or science-oriented programs. I should add that I did not apply to any American schools, and can’t speak to the GRE score or process. But it sounds miserable. So, here are some topics that I’ve been asked about, and some that people rarely bring up to me, but that I think are really important.

I realise from the Contents that I’ve framed much of my thoughts in financial terms. Please believe when I plead this in no way reflects my own views on the natural order of things, but rather is a consequence of the sad reality of austerity and late capitalism punishing the rest of us for not pursuing material gain over knowledge, art, the environment, personal betterment, etc. If you’re feeling TL;DR, scroll to #4, wherein I discuss what I think is the single most helpful strategy that shockingly few people actually seem to do.


  1. Paying for Your Course
  2. Someone Else Paying for Your Course
  3. Improve Your Odds of Someone Else Paying for Your Course
  4. The Importance of Being a Random Internet Person

Continue reading Applying to Grad School in Europe: A Guide for Canadians (and/or People Who Like Music and Science)

The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with Mark Colenburg

From his work with Common, Q-Tip, and A Tribe Called Quest, to gigs with Kenny Garret and Kurt Rosenwinkel, not to mention a Grammy win with Robert Glasper, drummer Mark Colenburg’s resume speaks to his virtuosity and innovative approach to rhythm. I’ve admired his playing for a long time, so I was very pleased to find that he is interested in rhythm cognition and was happy to share some thoughts on his mental and physical strategies as an elite musician and timing specialist. Life as a trainee scientist has been heavy (in a good way) lately, so this piece is a long time coming. Thanks for staying tuned!

ADM: I know you started out really young, but as you developed as a musician, were there any particularly difficult concepts or techniques (e.g., a feel, or maybe a specific series of movements) that come to mind? What was the breakthrough? Was there a mental strategy, a movement, or maybe something like a mnemonic that helped you to finally ‘get it’?

MC: Yes, I did start at the very young age of two. Early on in my development (which is continual), everything seemed difficult. The concept of single strokes, double strokes, and triple strokes, playing those patterns with drumsticks on a floor, was very challenging but so intriguing at the same time. Independence between my limbs, conviction, and tempo control are just a few other challenging concepts that come to mind. My strategy to overcoming some of those humps were intentional quality, effort, learned and unlearned exploring, and time. Using those strategies really helped me to establish a strong foundation mentally, physically and spiritually.  Continue reading The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with Mark Colenburg

The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae

This interview is the first in a series I’m calling “The Metacognition of Drumming”. Getting musicians to speak in concrete language about performance and other forms of musicking is notoriously difficult, but it’s crucial that artists, scientists, and amphibians dissolve our hard disciplinary edges. To this end, I will share my conversations with drummers (and maybe a lucky few non-percussionists) in an attempt to articulate these very non-wordy things we do when we play music together.
James McRae is a Vancouver Island institution, a fabulous musician, and a stalwart friend. I’m sad we don’t jam so often since I moved to England, but I’m grateful we could exchange some thoughts on the types of cognitive/active strategies drummers use here. If any readers have a perspective they’d like to share, drop me an email! And stay tuned for the next edition, featuring Robert Glasper Experiment drummer, Yamaha-sponsored artist, and Grammy Award-winner Mark Colenburg.

ADM: What is your approach to groove, both as a drummer and as a teacher?
JM: All music has to feel good. If it doesn’t feel good, people are going to turn away! How much of this is based on groove? A lot, probably. The feel changes based on the tempo. Steady tempos are great, but having metronomic time seems more artificial than natural.

Continue reading The Metacognition of Drumming: Interview with James McRae

Feeling It: Movement and Learning Rhythm


Civilised, enlightened, square

Western scientists noticed as early as the Victorian era that rhythm was bound with movement. In his 1894 essay “Rhythm”, Thaddeus Bolton reported to The American Journal of Psychology that no “primitive” person “is able to listen to music […] without making some kind of muscular movements”. He marvels at the effect that “rhythm of drums and the repetition of a simple melody” holds over “certain classes of people, savages and children”. Bolton operated within a colonial framework, and much of his later scholarship was concerned with racial psychology, so it’s unsurprising that he contrasts groove-oriented rhythm against what he saw as higher faculties, best represented in the mature, civilized, rational, and self-controlled white man, a la G. Stanley Hall.

Painful as it is to sift through Bolton’s ideologies, his focus on the “terrible leaping and gesticulations [to] the accompanying tom-tom” is prescient in light of modern behavioural, neurological, and neuroimaging investigations of rhythm. For instance, the way in which we move to a rhythm may impact how we hear it. Researchers found that participants were better at predicting a tone at the end of a series of beats having tapped along, compared to when listening alone, even when they couldn’t hear their own tapping. Using an ambiguous rhythm that could be interpreted in either a waltz or in common time, another group report that children and adults prefer and interpret new rhythms according to how they moved during the training phase, i.e., in 3/4 or 4/4 time. Movement also appears to enhance one’s ability to detect and locate an interrupted beat, when compared to listening-only conditions, especially for non-musicians. Intriguingly, we may even covertly move to music: anticipatory muscle activity while tapping to a rhythm differs substantially from unpaced movements, yet muscles show an almost identical preparatory profile during “passive”, or immobile, listening.

Functional brain imaging studies that use rhythm tasks or stimuli show activity in what are traditionally considered the motor areas of the brain, even when experimental subjects are lying perfectly still—not that MRI machines are ever really conducive to dancing.

If you love hiphop, thank your basal ganglia

These regions typically include the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and cortical motor areas. Moreover, evidence from people who have Parkinson’s disease, which affects the basal ganglia, suggests that their ability to process rhythms with a beat may be compromised. These and corroborating data lead some cognitive scientists to argue that our ability to perceive and process rhythms are entirely based in action: whether covert, imagined, or arising from past motor experiences.

But could movement play a role in learning rhythm, especially qualities like groove or swing? Continue reading Feeling It: Movement and Learning Rhythm

Book Review: Music and Embodied Cognition by Arnie Cox

Music and Embodied Cognition
Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking
Publisher: Indiana University Press (September 6, 2016)


In their essay Down with Disembodiment; or Musicology and the Material Turn, Holly Watkins and Melina Esse call for for “A musicology that navigate[s] the ‘mind/body problem,’” one that “expand[s] self-awareness beyond the limited domain of symbolic thought.”[1] Hotly debated by cognitive scientists since the 1980 publication of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT)  assumes that semantically sophisticated notions do not arise as output from a dislocated mind, but are instead facilitated by one’s bodily experiences.[2] Lakoff and Johnson turned heads, that is to say, scholars strongly attended to their argument that language—hence thought itself—is rooted in metaphor, and that the primary source domain of metaphor is physical interaction. Influential in linguistics and neuroscience, and preceded by feminist philosophies of the body in art theory and cultural studies, embodied approaches confront the cognitive revolution’s framing of the brain as computer-operator to the body-machine. This bring us, nearly four decades later, to Associate Professor of Music Theory at Oberlin Conservatory Arnie Cox’s book Music and Embodied Cognition, in which he develops a musicological application of CMT.[3]

For such is the present meaning of embodied cognition: Cox’s version roughly amounts to the interpretation of musical experience as viewed through the periscope of semiotic language, an entity often equivocated with “thought”. I contend that semantically-driven bodily awareness and embodied cognition are separable, and that their conflation is problematic particularly for music. That is not to say that Cox’s project is unworthy; on the contrary, actualizing the cerebral Venn diagram that correlates “high pitch” with “high mountain” (p. 92) is of interest to musicians, semioticians, and perhaps mountaineers. With respect to embodiment, however, the knot lies in the insidious notion that language is cognition, or at least its oracle. Cox’s system of gauging embodiment relies on words as both infrastructure and conductive medium. The order of operations in this epistemology of musical experience follows accordingly: (1) non-musical actions are embodied and codified as discourse; (2) this discourse subsequently influences and codifies future actions that are musical; (3) knowledge of embodiment in musical action is advanced through reverse-inference via discourse. In the following review I describe alternative conceptions of musical embodiment that resist contingency on referential mapping.

Let us begin with the voice. Continue reading Book Review: Music and Embodied Cognition by Arnie Cox