We were honoured to speak with Professor Henkjan Honing, one of the leading researchers of music cognition and biomusicology. The science behind musicality is at an exciting early stage, so there are at least as many intriguing questions as answers in this fascinating conversation.
Professor Honing has written two books exploring the science of musicality: The Evolving Animal Orchestra discusses what we can learn about musicality from the animal kingdom and The Origins of Musicality details the latest cutting-edge research on where human musicality comes from and how it works.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The crucial research study with newborn infants that changed the whole trajectory of Professor Honing’s research.
- Two surprising facts about absolute pitch (often called perfect pitch) that might completely change how you think about this seemingly-magical skill.
- What the state-of-the-art scientific research tells us about how much musicality is an innate part of us versus a purely-learned skill.
Enjoy this dive into Professor Honing’s perspective on musicality – and gain new appreciation for your own inner musician.
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Christopher: Welcome to the show Professor Honing. Thank you for joining us today.
Prof. Honing: Thanks. Nice to be here.
Christopher: So as I said to you a moment ago before we hit record, I have been so looking forward to this one because I’ve been thoroughly devouring your two most recent books, The Evolving Animal Orchestra and The Origins of Musicality, which you coauthored with a number of other academic researchers, and you really specialize in the scientific view on musicality. Obviously that’s something we talk about a lot on this show, and we’ve had various people weigh in as to what is musicality, and I’d love if we could put again in our compensation by just asking you that very question, to you what is musicality?
Prof. Honing: Yeah, musicality is, we think it is a fairly complex thing, in the sense that it is not one thing, but it is multiple skills, but we still don’t know precisely what they are. But we are agreeing, or at least in the definition we agree that musicality is something that is naturally, so biologically based, spontaneously developing. You don’t have to do a thing. You’ll just get better and better at it. That it is based on and constrained by our cognitive system and by our biological system. So it is a sort of just like language and the innate capacity for music that we all have. And that’s the term musicality. We use that for that particular … yeah, for the capacity of music. So not so much the use of the word like special musical talent or somebody who’s very musical in the sense that he or she plays very nicely or special, but more like a very, actually quite the opposite, that it is a common talent, it’s a shared, widely shared human talent.
Christopher: And one of the most striking experiments from your research is with newborn infants giving an indication that actually this truly is something innate to us. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Prof. Honing: Yeah. That was for me an important study, this is now almost 10 years ago where I was interested and still am. I’m mostly interested in rhythm as sort of a fundamental aspect of musicality or of music cognition. We did an experiment with newborn babies presenting them rhythms where once in a while we removed a note. This was a sort of kind of an experimental setup where we wanted to see, do newborn babies already have beat perception? Do they pick up the regularity in music? We were interested in that because there was a discussion at that time that maybe these videos that you see have young children dancing or sort of moving almost automatically to music. Whether that is learned, whether that is because the parents sort of say, “Yes, do it again,” or, “We film it,” or enthusiastically reacting, or is it a natural inborn talent?
Prof. Honing: And to answer the question, we did this experiment, listening experiment with newborn babies two, three days old, removing notes on the downbeat where you have a high expectation something will happen. So if you remove a note there, it sounds very … yeah, it’s a syncope. So the rhythm stumbles. It’s a very loud nothing. You have a high expectation something that will happen. It does not happen. Nothing. If you do it in another position in the rhythm, and music theory says it’s not the syncopation, you don’t notice it that much.
Prof. Honing: So the hypothesis is that if you have beat perception, if you pick it through regularity from the rhythm, you should note the downbeat removed, the downbeat more strongly than somewhere else in the rhythm. And if you do that listening experiment with grownups, we see that all over again, that they indeed have this sort of high expectation for the downbeat and they are more surprised if you remove something there than in any other place of the rhythm.
Prof. Honing: But we also found, and that was the big outcome of this paper in 2009 that newborn babies have the same thing. So you also see that their brains are surprised if you remove a note from the downbeat. So this is evidence for the fact that babies have beat perception, that it is, well, at least fairly early active. We still don’t know whether there is some learning because the auditory system is already functioning for three months in the last trimester of the pregnancy. So we can’t really disentangle these two. Whether this is active fairly early on, and you won’t know why because beat perception it’s in a way, yeah, it’s useless for language because we want to avoid regularity. One hypothesis says it has to do with heart beats, and we could, yeah, there’s lots to tell about that. But that turned out to be also not very likely.
Prof. Honing: But it is fundamentals of music. I mean, if you want to make music together with somebody else, you have to be able to synchronize. You have to be able to make … to hear the tempo of the other person. If you want to dance together, you also have to pick up these regularities. So it is a fundamental skill. Without music and dance, we wouldn’t be able to exist. And that made me very exciting 10 years ago. I didn’t expect it for one thing, and then I thought, “Okay, so maybe music has a more biological basis than I thought before.” And since then I started to look for collaborators in neurobiology and behavioral biology to see like if there is a neural or a biological basis, what is it and why do we have music, and is it something unique for us, or do we share it with other animals, because the biological basis you would expect to share it at least with some other animals.
Prof. Honing: So that’s, yeah, it was an important paper in 2009 for me because it changed my life basically. And I switched my toolkit and research again from psychology to biology and it’s still going on. Yeah.
Christopher: Terrific. Well, one thing I really liked about The Evolving Animal Orchestra was you wrote the book as a story more than kind of a research summary and you told a bit of this journey. I wonder if we could just fill in a little bit of the backstory before that pivotal study, what had you been researching? What was your background?
Prof. Honing: I started really as a musician. That was my first … I played the piano until I was, I think, 22 or something and very … I mean, I didn’t do much else. We’re all musicians, the whole family. They’re all professional musicians. So I was obviously I should be a pianist as well.
Prof. Honing: But I got fascinated by computers in the ’80s when there were also the first synthesizes. And I thought that was very cool. Even so cool that I thought that a piano was old-fashioned. So I sold all my old instruments and I really got obsessed by this computer. And that was my first field of research. So I was interested in what can a computer do for music. The thing that I found the most interesting question was, can you have a computer that listens in a way that human listen to music? So I was fascinated by the idea to make a listening machine, like for instance a drum machine that can follow you and then plays faster if you play faster or that sort of goes against your beat if … It was an idea that I thought, “Oh, fascinating.”
Prof. Honing: And then I found out, and that’s how I got into science, relatively late actually that I, with all my knowledge as a musician, I couldn’t explain the computer what tempo is or what early or late is in terms of a rhythm, or what is groove. I couldn’t … I mean, and I can recognize it. I can play it. But I couldn’t put it into numbers. That I found so in a way shocking that I thought, “Well, I have to, yeah, I have to figure it out because we must be able to do that because our minds can do that.”
Prof. Honing: So I was very much a believer that that was possible. And it turned out to be a new field that was sort of the cognitive science of music, or computational musicality. A whole new era where people started to make models of our musical listening, not so much … Maybe that’s good to add as well, not so much to replicate a human or to sort of, or to make something better than a human, but really to understand how a human works. So it’s a tool to understand something about our own listening skill.
Prof. Honing: And that is basically still what the field is about, musical cognition. If we try to understand what we humans can do so easily, we can so easily hear what the beat is of the music, we clap along. No problem whatsoever. Still it is a challenge for a computer to do the same thing. If you play a little bit of reggae, for instance, to one of these novel drum machines, they have no idea where you are. Of course that would be dismissing.
Prof. Honing: So this is intriguing, to see that for things that we can do very easily, and I find those the most interesting ones, the things that are seemingly trivial to us, to musicians, but also to musicologists. I mean, I basically studied beat perception and relative pitch, two things that musicologists think, “Oh, that’s too boring for to study.” But they’re so fascinating because they’re also very difficult to find in the animal world. It seems to be really a human talent, and it is fundamental to our listening pressure. Without relative pitch, you can’t listen to theme and variations because you wouldn’t recognize that it is a variation of that theme. And without beat perception you wouldn’t be able whether it speeds up or slows down or … Yeah. So, yeah.
Christopher: Yeah. 100% yeah. I think there was literally a sentence in the conclusion of my undergrad dissertation that said … It was about automatic transcription of tunes played on the harmonica, and trying to recognize the tune. And I said something like, “This was cool, but it’s kind of incredible that computers can’t do this when it’s so easy to a human.” And my master’s, I was looking at vocal music in pop recordings and trying to do that same kind of automatic transcription, and it was just, it was mind boggling how rich the data was that we were trying to pick apart with the computer, given how simple it sounds to the human ear.
Prof. Honing: Yeah.
Christopher: And what I didn’t have a clue about at the time was what is now called biomusicology in this field that you’ve gone on to really pioneer and study. And I would love that we could share some of that with the audience because it sheds such a fascinating different light. Having looked at how humans do it and how computers do it to then look at how the animal kingdom can reveal other aspects of what’s going on. And I’d love it if we could talk a little bit about that.
Prof. Honing: Yeah, yeah, because that’s indeed the strategy of the book is to, just like I previously used the machine to understand something about our mind, the musical mind. Since 2009, I’m interested in other animals to see how the human does again do this musical listening. So I’m interested in humans in that sense, but I use methods from biology to understand more about how we are and what we do.
Prof. Honing: And in the evolution The Evolving Animal Orchestra, I really, I started making notes on day one. So when the baby research was finished and I got excited, I made diary notes and it’s all in sort of a montage in the book of like how do I find another behavioral biologist that’s interested to do the same experiment with newborns for instance with monkeys? Simple question. Problematic story.
Christopher: And maybe before we go into that-Maybe I could just ask why would you want to do that? Is it a matter of looking at the physical biology because it’s simpler than the human? Or there’s this other aspect of the evolutional way of comparing the species, looking at a species that is similar in the evolutionary terms and one that’s different?
Prof. Honing: Yeah. It’s the multiple reasons to do comparative research, but the reason why I wanted to look at other animals was to see like is this, again, to see how strong the evidence is for a biological basis for music. And how much is it in our genes in that sense or a result of how humans evolved? So it’s both a evolutionary question and a biological question combined.
Prof. Honing: Because you could also say music is uniquely human and you can say the same thing for language. But also with language we know now that at least some of the components of language, we share with other animals. Other animals also can communicate with talent. And that gave us an enormous rich information about how to understand our own language. And I want to do the same thing looking at those researchers. I’m a bit jealous of language research because there are many, many people and we are just a few, but it has I think the same potential, this capacity for music has cultural components, social components, clearly also pointing at some biological basis.
Prof. Honing: And this is one strategy to figure out the biological basis by doing comparative research, looking at a particular musical skill, look at that same musical skill in animals that are genetically very close. Of course then according to, yeah, sort of Neo Darwinian assumption that two animals that have the same solution to the same problem that are genetically very close, their common ancestor probably also had that particular skill. So you can in the here and now say something about the musical skill and when it arose in the past.
Prof. Honing: Also with animals that are genetically very distant almost, they might also have evolved that particular skill. And then you have lots that don’t have a shared common ancestor that had that skill probably and that evolved independently. And then you have two data points. And then you can do all kinds of nice techniques of sort of figuring out why did beat perception evolve in the evolution of humans or even of primates. Why do birds, songbirds and not all birds have it as well. And that issue of a very rich story, which has been speculated for ages already. There are lots of theories why have music, because we imitate birds or because we are … because of the parents, the child… multiple theories. Sexual selection is the third one by Darwin.
Prof. Honing: All these theories can be true, but we don’t know how to test them. And with this new methodology, comparative biology, basically you can sort of start answering which theory is more likely and which theory is less likely. And that’s what scientists love. In the end, we want to know what is more likely the truth than something else. It can’t be all true. So that is, yeah, this perspective on the possibilities that we, if we understand better the biological basis of our talent for music, then we can do all, answer all these questions that have been standing out for ages. And that’s very exciting. And that’s why more and more people luckily come in the field and start helping and doing all these experiments.
Prof. Honing: And the book describes that. Also the book describes that in a way, in a very honest way because I mean in research normally you’ll be seeing in the end wonderful result, babies can hear the beat, but here you also see the path towards that. So I really wanted to show the process with all the failures, because I mean, I mean 80% of the time things go wrong because of stupid mistakes, because of naive optimism, because of all kinds of these things.
Prof. Honing: I’m quite honest in this book. I wanted to be because so in the end it is also still like, yeah, what do we know now? Yeah, not very much yet. Not very much yet. But you see like how can you figure … how can you answer those questions? We know now that it’s possible to answer those questions because the methodology is more clear, but still, yeah, almost every month there is a paper that again, sort of shakes the theories that are there and it’s, yeah, it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time for me.
Christopher: That’s definitely the impression I came away with from both books. Like this is a burgeoning field with a lot of really exciting questions still to be answered. And I think there was a comment in one of them along the lines of, it’s really an underserved area of research because in some sense society still considers music to be a nice to have, an optional perk rather than something really fundamental and intrinsic. And as you say, a lot more attention may be paid to language in this kind of research than has been to music, which the upside is there are still fascinating questions to find out the answers to. So you did find a collaborator to take that newborn experiment to the animal kingdom and traveled to Mexico. Could you tell us a little bit about how that went and what it revealed?
Prof. Honing: Yeah, this was, most of these things happen by coincidence. So I have a sitting at a table, at a conference next to someone that I didn’t know, Hugo Merchant. And he is an expert in the auditory system. He does biomedical research. So he contributes to the whole literature that we know about Parkinson’s disease, deafness. So a very different type of researcher.
Prof. Honing: I said, “Well, I have this simple experiment. Nobody wants to do this.” And he understands why primate made research just didn’t want to do that, because of all kinds of ethical reasons, but also because of competition with the techniques that they normally use with these invasive techniques. They normally they like to go with electrodes in the brains. Of course, we are allowed to do that apparently with rhesus macaques and then measure whether there is beat session going on.
Prof. Honing: I didn’t want to do that because I thought for my questions that was one step too far. I wanted just to use this, and it’s non-invasive technique, just a few electrodes on the skull. We did it with the newborns as well. It’s not traumatic at all. And you can still see whether they are sensitive to the beat or not. And he said, “Okay, let’s do it.” And he really arranged this whole lab. He brought new equipment. I was very honored. We worked for a year and then the result was basically that rhesus macaques cannot do it. They’re an animal model for our brains. Their brains look so similar to ours, and that’s why we use those animals for experiments that we don’t want to do on humans. But apparently we allow ourselves to do other monkeys.
Prof. Honing: So that helped the literature a lot in that sense, the medical literature. But they don’t have beat perception. So we came up with a new theory that it is probably not the particular structures like the motor cortex or the auditory cortex, but the connections between those areas that makes the difference. And that’s an hypothesis we’ve worked almost into then, to see like, okay, maybe because this is disappointing. So again, it’s just that music is uniquely human. It’s not shared with rhesus macaques, at least this particular skill, beat perception. And I don’t believe that … I think, if it has a biological basis, it should have a longer, a longer history.
Prof. Honing: So the hypothesis now was that they sort of evolved gradually within the primate. So rhesus macaques do not have it or at least barely. But then probably chimpanzees have it a little bit more and humans have it like fully fledged, like we all have, like young children start to go to the music almost automatically because these connections between the motor cortex and the auditory cortex, both directions they’re very strong. So they have to move when they hear the music.
Prof. Honing: But that evolved slowly. So that probably that chimpanzees should have that a little bit. And that was also, it is also described in the book that I went to a chimpanzee lab to see like we do the experiment there, and there we couldn’t do that because we’re not allowed to stick electrodes on the head of the chimpanzees, so we had to do it in another way. And the paper actually came out … We’re now in January, 2020. It came out two weeks ago.
Prof. Honing: So indeed as predicted, chimpanzees have, well, at least they spontaneously start to move when they hear regular beats, just like young children do. So luckily in a way, I am not allowed to say that as a scientist, but at least the weird idea that is uniquely human is already … is now falsified. And that gives me more sort of confidence that this biological basis is the proper route to go to.
Prof. Honing: There are also other animals. Maybe we come to that that can also do it, but they are genetically further away from us. This was sort of really the question, like within primates, do we share some musical skills? Yeah.
Christopher: And it’s so interesting how it can, not just answer that big question but shed so much light on what must be going on under the hood as it were. There was another case, and forgive me if I’m oversimplifying, but you were looking at a pair of individual humans with beat deafness, which is incredibly rare.
Prof. Honing: That’s right.
Christopher: And what you found in the course of the experiments was that it wasn’t that they were completely oblivious to the beat. There was something in their brain that was picking up on what you would expect to see. But then there was some kind of network in the brain that hadn’t been built out to actually give them the conscious awareness of what was going on.
Prof. Honing: Yeah. Now that’s very interesting because, I mean, with beat perception it seems like everyone has it, musicians, non-musician, everybody has this sensitivity. So it’s very easy for us or for … Of course, you have some variability. You have people that are better at picking up the beat and less well. And that’s also for us very interesting because we need this variability to do our statistics.
Prof. Honing: But also an interesting thing is to look for people that apparently do not have beat perception and that’s … We know of people who are tone deaf or amusiast, the more general term. So they’re really a-musical. They don’t have music. Tone deafness, so not be able to distinguish two melodies as being different it’s a very, yeah, it’s a skill. I think of this now, the estimates are 1.5% of the world’s population who have that. So that’s a pretty large group, more or less, levels of sensibility for that. And beat perception is far more difficult. So to find someone who really does not pick up the beat. So somebody who can’t hear the difference between a march and a waltz.
Prof. Honing: Together with Isabelle Peretz in the BRAMS Institute, we’ve now found I think six people of hundreds of people that they scan over the years. So it is a very … yeah, that’s very uncommon. And such a person I describe in the book, it’s Mathieu and also Marjorie. We did the same experiment that we did with the newborn. So with the macaques, five electrodes or maybe a little bit more on the skull, listening to drum rhythms, removing notes in different positions of the rhythm.
Prof. Honing: And then you see, you already explained in the introduction, you see that their brains recognize when there is an omission on the downbeat. So they do have beat perception. But some other measure, another event-related potential shows that they have no conscious access to it. So their brains still have beat perception. It’s just, yeah, when you think of it, a feedback loop that is sort of lacking or less developed, but that doesn’t allow them to get access to that information, or flag theirs to downbeat.
Prof. Honing: You see the same thing with people with tone deafness. So that’s the common explanation of how people are sort of amusia, that it is, yeah, a malfunctioning of this feedback loop. And that’s very … It’s very interesting. So even somebody who is beat deaf still can pick up the beat technically or literally the brain. So yeah, that’s interesting for multiple reasons.
Prof. Honing: Also, I talk too much then in those days a few times. And he had to laugh of course, because yeah, he has no beat perception and I’m spending most of my life. He says, “I don’t miss a thing.” So we had, yeah, we had some fun about it because, but then also there’s some pretty old footage where he explains that, yeah, well in parties people said, well please don’t play that guitar because that doesn’t sound good. Or if we dance, let me lead because you don’t know where to go. So there were some social implications, minor social implications that we found problematic, but for the rest he is very, he has normal intelligence. He speaks multiple languages. He even has a talk show. He’s a DJ.
Prof. Honing: So it’s fascinating to see that there is apparently something wrong there in the network of the brain that let him not pick up this regularity. And that’s very, very interesting for our research to see like can you repair that, or why is it … is such the talent so stubborn or so omnipresent?
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love that a moment ago you referred to the group with amusia or tone deafness at 1.5% as being a large group. And of course it is compared to beat deafness, but it’s all about perspective. We went on this big project a few years back, trying to convey to people how rare tone deafness is because so many people who can’t sing declare themselves tone deaf and completely incapable when in fact they just haven’t learned to train their voice. And actually we were drawing on Isabelle Perezt’s work to develop our tone deafness test online and it validates that. It’s 1% to 2% of individuals who truly can’t do it. And for us that was a reason to go out and shout about how rare it is. But of course beat deafness even more so. And it’s so fascinating to look at what’s going on biologically and what we can learn from that.
Christopher: I think one of the most interesting parts of your books for me was that you’re kind of as a research field, you are trying to construct this model of how humans process and understand music. And that is so often done kind of top-down. A musicologist or someone like myself, a music educator will think about, “Here’s the music. How can we break it down? Well, we got melody, we’ve got harmony, we’ve got rhythm. We’ve got timbre,” and try and work down to what’s the simplest thing we could teach to people. And you and your contemporaries are kind of doing it from the bottom up and saying, “What are the most fundamental things that we can biologically see are happening and what can we draw out in terms of the mental structures that might be there.”
Christopher: We’ve talked a fair bit about rhythm. I wonder if we could just flesh out a bit what the current best guess model is for human cognition between the rhythmic cognition and the melodic.
Prof. Honing: Yeah, that’s an interesting … It’s a good question. My hunch is that there might be some big changes in our thinking in the coming years. This is because the paper that I also described briefly in The Evolving Animal Orchestra. For instance, if you look at birds, I will come back on humans in a moment, but if you look at birds, it turns out that birds, when they listen to music, they do not particularly pay attention or primarily … not primarily at least attention to pitch and rhythm, but more to spectral change.
Prof. Honing: So it turns out that birds actually listen to music if you put them in such a situation in a way we listen to speech. If you listen to speech, you listen to the spectral changes all the time because that’s the vowels, that’s where the information is. We don’t pay so much attention to the pitches that we speak or the rhythm that we speak. That’s secondary. That is additional information. And for some strange reason, if you compare it to birds, we humans listen, if we listen to music, we hear melody and rhythm.
Prof. Honing: If you play the same melody in the guitar or on the violin, it sounds just like the same melody. If you do that to a bird, it’s a completely different thing because the spectrum is different. And I find that a fascinating difference that sort of hints that it might be or my intuition says that is sort of being more, get more information out of the spectrum itself is more fundamental. It’s something we share with more animals in that sense, in that sense fundamental. And that this idea of focusing on melody and rhythm is maybe something that we … is more culturally, it’s yeah … Steven Pinker, he’s not very … He’s an evolutionary psychologist. He said that music is actually a supernormal stimulus. Music is something that super normally stimulates our senses that are developed for something else. And he might be partially right I think. He bashed music as auditory cheesecake a long time ago, but this idea that melody and rhythm are actually super normally stimulated aspects of music might be, yeah, a proper … at least it’s one way of looking at how music works.
Prof. Honing: So that’s where I would say the next step would be. Not so much like is it melody or the components of melody, is it relative pitch, contour perception, absolute pitch? Or in rhythm is it beat perception, meter, interval perception, all these components that you can think of. It may be a more common sensitivity to relative proportions or relations. Yeah.
Christopher: That’s really interesting and there was a slightly related chapter in the Origins book about auditory scene analysis and how we can compare how our brain interprets different sound sources in our environment with how we tune into different components of music. And I think it was making a slightly similar distinction of what you’re listening spectrally or in these rhythmic and melodic terms. It’s …
Prof. Honing: Yeah, it’s a great chapter by Laurel Trainor. Yeah.
Christopher: It’s a bit hard to wrap your brain around really. I think when you’re coming from that almost abstract music theory perspective of here is a note on the page and it has pitch and duration to leap across to that kind of Fourier spectrum world of much richer data but much more complex too. And I think it’s going to be fascinating to see if there is an intersection there that can reveal more about how we distill out into melody and rhythm from what we hear.
Christopher: So one of the aspects of the Origins book that was, that I knew would be of most interest to our audience was to look at how things differ from individual to individual. And before we address that question head on, you had this fantastic TEDx Talk in which you made a comment along the lines of everyone thinks absolute pitch is an incredible magical talent, but actually it’s relative pitch which is more special. I wonder if you could explain that a little bit, distinguish between the two, and why you think we should be a bit prouder of the fact that we have good relative pitch.
Prof. Honing: Yeah. Actually the pitch is a nice one because it’s … If in the lecture I asked the audience, what do you consider a very special musical listening skill, everybody immediately, “Perfect pitch. Absolute pitch.” Because, yeah, it looks like a miracle. Hey, you play key on the piano and you say what? F sharp. Correct. And it seems to be one in 20,000 people have that. It has a clear biological basis. We know in the genome where this was decoded. So that’s obviously a biological talent.
Prof. Honing: But it is also good to realize it’s a talent we share with lots of mammals, lots of dogs have absolute pitch, wolves, we know macaques, other mammals. Also, songbirds. They tend to, if they’re forced to, they tend to remember a melody of its absolute pitch. So a melody slightly higher is another melody for a bird. It’s another bird basically.
Prof. Honing: But we think it is a very musical talent. And I think that’s incorrect. But still, but still, it seems that absolute pitch is actually far more widespread than we think. This is strange start. Yes, absolute pitch, this is strange term because you say, well you hear a tone, you have to classify it as a certain pitch, whether this was on a piano or whether somebody sung the tone, and then you have to say, you have to label it with a note label like C sharp, F, G, whatever. So it’s actually a more cognitive skill.
Prof. Honing: But the first part of that, sort of recognizing or remembering a certain pitch is something we can do very well. And children can do it even better. So you have this wonderful test where you present children with famous tunes from television and you scale some of these tunes a semitone up or down. They recognize the original. Also, I do it sometimes … I think I do it in the TED Talk. I show a fragment of the Bee Gees singing Stayin’ Alive without sound. And then I ask somebody to sing it. I’ve done with them multiple times. If you ask somebody to sort of relax a bit, because they have to relax, and then sing how you thought Stayin’ Alive would sound like, they sing it almost 80% of the time spot on, on the right pitch, starting with a C and in the right tempo, under 30 beats per minute. So we have a very good memory for songs that we know very well and have repetitive timber, and we can remember them. It’s a skill we also have.
Prof. Honing: So if you know Stayin’ Alive of the Bee Gees, you know that that starts with a C. So you can sort of, yeah, that’s absolute pitch. But it is not special in the sense that we share it with lots of animals. It’s also not special in the sense that it doesn’t really contribute to our musical appreciation. So I think it is, yeah, it has not so much to do with music I would say.
Prof. Honing: And relative pitch, so recognizing a melody independent of its pitch height, if I sing happy birthday, high or low or fast or slow, you will recognize it all that’s happy birthday. That’s special because lots of things change all the time. The frequency ratios, the frequency of the cells, the timing, everything changes. So it’s the same thing. And that’s something … Birds cannot do that. And that’s something we find trivial. And that’s actually, yeah, a key ingredient of the pleasure of listening to music. We can make these relationships all the time.
Prof. Honing: So indeed relative pitch is key in musicality. We all agree about that in the field at the moment. And absolute pitch is something awkward. It has not so much to do with musicality.
Christopher: I have to be careful how I phrase it depending on who I’m talking to. But we sometimes talk about how it’s almost a gimmick or a party trick that actually doesn’t help you that much in your musical life. And we say that to reassure those who feel like they’ll never be able to transcribe music because they don’t have absolute pitch or that kind of thing. And I love the way you explained it just now.
Christopher: It also seems like another beautiful example of how the research can shed light on what’s going on under the hood, in the sense that if we have that auditory memory with absolute pitch, but we can’t put a label on it, well we’ve kind of got half the skill there. It’s not as simple as can you do it or not.
Prof. Honing: An important half. Maybe it’s more than half. That’s the skill. And then the labeling is just assigning a label to a category. You can do that also in other ways. Yeah.
Christopher: Absolutely. We’ve talked a little bit about where the field might be going. I wonder if we could wrap up just by talking about what you’re most excited about researching next and what the most interesting, outstanding questions are in the field.
Prof. Honing: Yeah.
Christopher: In 30 words or less.
Prof. Honing: Yeah, I’m interested in … One line of research is to continue this comparative work. So I’m continuing to do this, especially now with birds, zebra finches instead of monkey. So that’s one line of research.
Prof. Honing: Another big project, I’m actually writing my research proposals at the moment for a few years is to really make the biological link concrete on the genetic level. We’re now working on a large international consortium because this is research that you have to do with hundreds of people, trying to get a group together that is effective enough to say what is the genetic basis for music. We know that for absolute pitch, we know that some rhythmic and pitch aspects, and yeah, the ambition to really underpin the biological basis in a genetic sense in the genome.
Prof. Honing: That will take a long time but that is a wonderful tool. It’s a complicated tool but a wonderful tool because it can again answer questions that have been around for such a long time. Like for instance, if you know where in the genome or probably in multiple locations, particular sensitivities, musical sensitivities are coded, like for instance pitch perception, you can look at the genome of other species but also of distinct species like the neanderthals or homo erectus, and then you have this wonderful tool to say something about the history of music that we can’t do now.
Prof. Honing: Music doesn’t fossilize. I mean, we find one flute of 45,000 years ago, and that’s it. Our musical brain also doesn’t fossilize, so we have no comparison. And then with genetics, if we get that in our fingers, that will take a while, at least five years, then we suddenly have a tool in getting into this history of how music and when music rose and why. Yeah. And that’s something that I find very exciting, and I tried to convince, yeah, especially Europe in this case, to give enough money to realize that. Yeah.
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, as I was saying to you, I’ve so enjoyed reading your two most recent books and I wholeheartedly recommend them. I think it’s fair to say Origins of Musicality is a fairly, fairly serious academic book for those who really want the detailed research, and Origin … Sorry, The Evolving Animal Orchestra is a lighter read because you share the research in a very storytelling way, but both thoroughly fascinating. We’ve barely scratched the surface in this conversation, but I do have to be respectful of your time today. So I just want to say a huge thank you, and if you could leave people with a place to go if they want to learn more and pick up a copy of those books.
Prof. Honing: Yeah. I think if you google on the title, you’ll find information easily. But I think a good start is musiccognition.nl and otherwise mcg.uva.nl. That’s our research group in Amsterdam.
Christopher: We’ll certainly have links to those in the show notes for this episode at musicalitynow.com and just a huge thank you again Professor Honing.
Prof. Honing: Thank you very much for having me. Yeah.