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Last week’s activity – in between the paperwork, the teaching, the paperwork, the paperwork, the teaching and the paperwork – was mostly taken up in preparations for the Hearing Wagner event, part of the AHRC’s Being Human festival.

Being a part of the Being Human festival gave us the opportunity to work to collect data that we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to: because of the fortuitous timing of the Mariinsky Theatre’s production of the Ring at the Birmingham Hippodrome between 5th and 9th November, we were able to convince funders to allow us to offer free tickets to Birmingham Conservatoire students, in exchange for being wired up to equipment measuring their electrodermal activity, blood flow, and hand motion.

Why collect these data? Well, on of the themes of the Transforming Musicology project as a whole is to examine the perception of leitmotive, particularly Wagner’s use of them in the Ring, and the idea behind gathering these data is to have ecologically-valid (in as much as that is possible when there’s a device strapped to you) measurements of participants’ physical responses to the performance, where those physical responses are believed to correlate with emotional arousal. Using those measurements, we can then go looking for signals of responses to leitmotives, or to other musical or production cues: as well as the students attending the performance, some of the research team were present backstage, noting down the times of events in the staging of (subjective) particular significance – lighting changes, for example.

And then all of these data come back to base, and we have to go through the process of looking for signal. And before we can do anything else, we have to make sure that all of our data are aligned to a reference timeline. For each of the operas, we ended up with around 2GB of data files: up to 10 sets of data from the individual participants, sampled at 120Hz or so; times of page turns in the vocal score, noted by a musicologist member of the research team (a coarse approximation to the sound experienced by the participants); timestamped performance annotations, generated by a second musicologist and dramaturge. How to get all of this onto a common timeline?

Well, in the best of all possible worlds, all of the clocks in the system would have been synchronized by ntp, and that synchronization would have been stable and constant throughout the process. In this case, the Panglossians would have been disappointed: in fact none of the various devices was sufficiently stably synchronized with any of the others to be able to get away with no alignment.

Fortunately, the experimental design was carried out by people with a healthy amount of paranoia: the participants were twice asked to clap in unison: once in the backstage area, where there was only speed-of-sound latency to the listeners (effectively negligible), and once when seated in the auditorium, where there was additional latency from the audio feed from the auditorium to backstage. Those claps gave us enough information, on the rather strong assumption that they were actually simultaneous, to tie everything together: the first clap could be found on each individual measuring device by looking at the accelerometer data for the signature, which establishes a common timeline for the measurement data and the musicologists; the second clap gives a measure for the additional latency introduced by the audio feed. Since the participants’ claps weren’t actually simultaneous – despite the participants being music students, and the clap being conducted – we have a small error, but it’s likely to be no more than about one second.

And this week? This week we’ll actually be looking for interesting signal; there’s reason to believe that electrodermal activity (basically, the change in skin conductance due to sweat) is indicative of emotional arousal, and quite a sensitive measure of music-induced emotion. This is by its nature an exploratory study: at least to start with, we’re looking at particular points of interest (specified by musicologists, in advance) for any correlation with biosignal response – and we’ll be presenting initial results about anything we find at the Hearing Wagner event in Birmingham this weekend. The clock is ticking...

edit: see also a similar post on the project blog