Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Networks and Nonlinearity in the Musical Experience

Date: March 1 - 4, 2011

Convenors: Thilo Gross (Dresden), Cristián Huepe (Chicago)

What defines good music? Why are certain sequences of sounds appreciated as music and others are not? What is it that a given social group identifies in a musical piece to determine its quality? These questions have been in the minds of both artists and scientists for centuries but, while often answered at a personal level, they still elude scientific resolution. Clearly, the answers will involve classical results on the physics of sound and the physiology of sound perception. But music appreciation is also inherently linked to the neurological and psychological responses induced in the listener, and, at a higher level, musical taste is formed through the exchange of opinions in social networks. In this light, music appears as an emergent phenomenon arising from networks of nonlinear interactions on different levels.

Despite its long history, asking what determines musical appreciation addresses a number of timely issues. More than academic discussion, technological progress over the past decade has opened up new perspectives that connect this question to a wide range of applications. First, the advance of software and computers has given everyone access to the necessary equipment for synthesizing virtually every possible acoustic waveform. Thus, for producing the next musical masterpiece today, we lack only the knowledge of which waveform would produce the desired effect in the listener. Second, the popularization of electronic communication has created large data sources that allow a direct investigation of musical opinion formation (such as Amazon,, or Twitter). These provide insights that may help developing better music recommendation systems, which could have significant cultural and economic impact, giving greater visibility to less known, high quality artists. Finally, understanding how musical taste is formed in a social context may also provide insights into other opinion formation processes, such as political or religious opinion formation, on which considerably less data is available.

The ZiF workshop ‘Networks and Nonlinearity in the Musical Experience’ initiated a transdisciplinary dialogue on the production and appreciation of musical pieces. In contrast to previous discussions in the field, which usually focus on classical music and perception, the workshop concentrated on new music, music technology trends, and new media. In order to span all the relevant topics, from the production of music to its appreciation in a social context, the workshop brought together international experts and business leaders from a wide range of fields, including music production, audiology, musicology, neuroscience, psychology, socio-biology, sociology, art history, information industry, and network physics. Many of the participants contributed to the discussion not only with their work in research and industry, but also with their experience of having a second career in music, such as Jean-Luc Amestoy, a French accordionist, Anne-Ly Do, a classical soprano, Subhendu Ghosh, a performer of traditional Indian music, and Robert Henke, a notable artist in electronic music.

A total of 19 talks and 6 practical demonstrations revealed many common interests and potential for collaboration between the disciplines. The analysis tools developed by Silke Kipper to study bird songs were found to have much in common with the complex-systems-based improvisation techniques used by Jean-Luc Amestoy. The quantitative psychological studies of the effects of music on groups of individuals by Hauke Egermann sparked ideas in Pedro Cano for their use in music recommendation engines. The large dataset analysis used by Maximilian Schich to unveil unsuspected historical artistic trends was of great interest to Torsten Hartmann for inspiring new music information data mining approaches on the web. The psychoacoustic effects demonstrated by Birger Kollmeier and their related neurological models were quickly considered by Robert Henke for use in future musical pieces. Even further synergies where revealed during the coffee breaks, where we saw electronic music production tools used to analyze (and even retune!) nightingale songs, and music improvisation diagrams inspiring formal mathematical proofs. The pleasant and open atmosphere at the ZiF provided an ideal setting for the exchange of ideas and concepts. In particular, two evening musical sessions allowed the group to perform and learn about the diversity of musical perspectives represented, which included classical, French bal-musette, electronic, Indian, and popular music, among others.

At the end, several participants mentioned that only during the meeting they understood how their work related to musical appreciation and opinion formation and discovered new ways in which interdisciplinary collaborations could advance their work.

The question of understanding music appreciation from a scientific perspective will probably still remain unanswered for some time. Major challenges need to be overcome and progress will require a truly transdisciplinary effort. However, this workshop showed that the right time to commence this effort is now and that for overcoming the challenges a new complex-systems-based perspective is essential. While the ultimate goal of understanding the formation of musical tastes may still be far ahead, many synergies are already apparent and a number of intermediate results and applications are within reach.


Jean-Luc Amestoy (Toulouse), Stefano Boccaletti (Sesto Fiorentino), Gesa Böhme (Dresden), Pedro Cano (Barcelona), Güven Demirel (Dresden), Anne-Ly Do (Dresden), Hauke Egermann (Montréal), Charo Del Genio (Dresden), Subhendu Ghosh (Dresden), Torsten Hartmann (Dresden), Robert Henke (Berlin), Silke Kipper (Berlin), Birger Kollmeier (Oldenburg), Tobias Schlemmer (Dresden), Maximilian Schich (Boston, MA), Gerd Zschaler (Dresden)

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