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Has the music we listen to, and why we listen, changed during the coronavirus pandemic?

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This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Health-hop: The hip new way one doctor is educating youth on COVID-19

A Cornell Health physician has blended rap and medicine to better educate kids on coronavirus guidelines.

Photo Source: YouTube
  • Dr. Clarke's rap music video "Stop Corona" aims to convey key information about COVID-19 to certain hard-to-reach youth demographics.
  • Clark has created many "health-hop" songs and videos over the years with topics that address smoking to asthma to H1N1.
  • Music helps us remember information better through a process called "chunking," through which we take individual pieces of information and group them together into larger units.

A doctor at Cornell Health is educating the kids on COVID-19 by meshing rap music with medicine.

John Clarke, director of occupational medicine at Cornell Health, always felt called to rap. He began writing music when he was just 8 years old and later majored in music at Columbia University. Though his talent scored him a recording deal when he was younger, he ultimately decided to take a career path toward medicine. But he never stopped writing, producing, and performing rap music. Now he regularly drops beats on health-related topics carving out a genre he calls "health-hop."

“Stop Corona”

His most recent video is "Stop Corona," which he hopes will convey key information about COVID-19 to certain hard-to-reach youth communities.

"For certain demographics, something like a rap video will resonate," Clarke said to the Cornell Chronicle. "And there's a science behind why songs are effective for teaching. Rhythm and rhyme stimulate memory. Music stimulates several parts of the brain at the same time. So a lot of time it's easier to remember songs than it is to remember just facts."

Music helps us remember information better through a process called "chunking," through which we take individual pieces of information and group them together into larger units. It works like this: Our short term memory can only hold about seven units of information at a time, but we can cram more material into each of those units by putting them into bigger chunks. This allows us to store more content. By linking words and phrases in a tune, music allows us to chunk lyrics. In this way we can attach, say, medical guidelines to melody and rhythm and make it easier to recall later.

Clark's 2-minute song urges listeners "not to be a case" by being "careful who gets in your personal space" and "not to touch your eyes, your nose or your face." Real medical guidelines are rewritten into rhyme and put to a beat.

"I first researched in-depth about the disease, how it spreads and the way it presents, so my message is consistent with what I would tell a patient as a doctor," Clarke said. "In health-hop, you're limited in the scope of words you can use to rhyme. It's a challenge, but it's a challenge I enjoy."

The power of health-hop

Clark told the Chronicle that he first began creating health-hop around 20 years ago as a doctor in Jamaica, Queens.

"We had a large population of asthmatics, many of whom were young. And a lot of their parents were young as well," he said. "This was a culturally sensitive approach to delivering a health message. I created a rap song, we showed it at a high school, and it went really well. We showed that this is an effective way of appealing to that audience."

Clark has created many health-hop songs and videos over the years with topics that address smoking to asthma to H1N1, the last of which won a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsored contest in 2009 and became a public service announcement for swine flu safety.

Clarke said that in addition to helping educate and inform, rap music provides a creative outlet for him to balance with the more rigid, methodical field of medicine.

Personal meaning

Clark's 14-year-old son, an aspiring rapper himself, helped write and perform "Stop Corona". Additionally his three younger children also appear in the video.

"Having someone their age be part of the message is a really good way to connect with that audience," Clarke said.

Sadly about a week after filming the video, the Cornell Chronicle reports that Clarke's wife's parents became ill with coronavirus and died a short time later. They were the first two COVID-19-related fatalities in Tompkins County, NY, where the Clark family lives and works. The "Stop Corona" video concludes with a dedication in their memory.

"I knew they would have wanted us to spread this message, and they would have been proud of their grandchildren," Clarke said. "...It's really critical that folks listen to preventive strategies – the quarantine, the handwashing, all of the things I outline in the video. Even if you're not doing it to protect yourself, do it to help protect other more vulnerable members of the community whose immune systems may not be as strong."

Go here for more Health-Hop videos created by Dr. Clarke.

Professional musicians are not right-brained

A study finds that while musical newbies exercise the brain's so-called creative hemisphere, pros have moved on.

Image source: Dolo Iglesias/Unsplash
  • Professional jazz musicians are seen in EEGs as using mostly their left brain hemisphere, which is considered the logical/analytical side.
  • The right hemisphere may be more suitable to the sort of creative invention required of people still learning how to play.
  • Is the study's conclusion about jazz, or is it about competence?

The cliché is that creativity happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, while more analytic activities go on in the left. While this isn't entirely untrue, it's an over-simplification of how the brain works. In fact, according to a new study from Drexel University's Creativity Research Lab, expert jazz performers are more likely to use the left side of their brains.

Setting the stage

Image source: Kounios, et al

The study, "Dual-process contributions to creativity in jazz improvisations: An SPM-EEG study," is published in the journal NeuroImage. It was led by David Rosen of Secret Chord Technology, a new startup that bills itself as "an A.I. software platform that uses advanced analytics based on our globally acclaimed research on the neuroscience of music enjoyment to give you insights that will help you cut through the noise." In other words, they say they have the ability to predict whether or not people will like a given piece of music, based on neuroscience. It's an interesting topic in its own right.

For the study, Rosen and Drexel psychology professor John Kounios recorded high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) from 32 jazz-guitar players. The researchers used EEGs for tracking brain activity because fMRIs more commonly used for neuroscientific investigations of music require participants to be laying down while watching their hand in a mirror as it plays a keyboard — a weak representation of the actual experience of performing.

Some of the players in the study were highly experienced while others were less so, more like students of the form. Speaking of the form, the word and genre "jazz" encompasses a wide range of musics, from Dixieland, to improvisational bebop-based styles, to tightly orchestrated band arrangements, to free-form painting with sound. While the study doesn't specify what it means by "jazz," it does quote Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, pointing the discussion firmly in the bebop direction.

Each player was provided lead sheets — simple melody-and-chord notation — for six jazz tunes. They were instructed to improvise for about two minutes around each of these melodies, playing along with pre-recorded drums, bass, and piano accompaniment as their performances were recorded. The 16-bar tunes were constructed to be all of a similar playing difficulty, and they were all at 144 beats-per-minute, a pretty brisk tempo, especially for less experienced players.

On the right, students. On the left, pros.

close-up of guitar

Image source: Dominik Scythe/Unsplash

Afterward, the recordings were rated by four expert jazz musicians for player categorization, creativity, and other qualities. Combining these ratings with EEG measurements and analysis revealed two things:

  • EEG measurements for those performances rated as high-quality (the most competent and professional) indicated that most of the accompanying activity was in the brain's left hemisphere.
  • The less-expert performances were characterized by activity in the right hemisphere.

The study explains pros' left-brain activity as evidence of their performing in an enhanced state of flow: "This aligns with theoretical models of jazz improvisation which posit that an individual is performing at his or her peak of arousal and ability when entering a flow state."

Another interpretation

hands playing a piano

Image source: Massimo Sartirama/Unsplash

"If creativity is defined in terms of the quality of a product, such as a song, invention, poem or painting, then the left hemisphere plays a key role. However, if creativity is understood as a person's ability to deal with novel, unfamiliar situations, as is the case for novice improvisers, then the right hemisphere plays the leading role." — John Kounios

Jazz, particularly bebop-based jazz, is a special case in music in at least one key regard, as Kounios' comment suggests. Improvisation in this type of music is felt by many to be inherently more intellectual than creative, concerned primarily with the strategic — some might say "mathematical" — accurate deployment of existing musical scales and motifs rather than the creation of something genuinely new. Much emphasis in this form is placed on memorization and technique, which fits perfectly well with the study's left-brain findings. This type of jazz playing may be closer to recitation than creation— its creativity comes in the choices made as to which elements to recite.

For students and less-experienced players, on the other hand, it's all new, and theirs is much more an experience of genuine right-brained exploration and creativity, as they fumble their way toward understanding the form and learning how to produce its auditory elements. While often less successful for listeners, this is at the heart of creativity: turning bits of the known into something new. Of course their right hemispheres are active.

The professional musician's brain

For any type of music — perhaps any type of art — it may well be that the experienced performer is always going to be working more from their left hemisphere. Years of practice produces competence, and perhaps more importantly, familiarity, with the material to be performed. There's little exploring to be done, just competent execution. It can still be fascinating to watch a true musical great perform, their every gesture being forehead-smacking evidence of almost unbelievable skill.

Creativity, though, is its own show, and worthy of appreciation. At a high-school choir concert, for example, there's little taken for granted: The singers are right there in the moment, on-edge for fear of mistakes, and fully charged-up. It's nothing short of exciting.

Fortunately, there doesn't have to be a trade-off between the two. Our greatest musicians never stop pushing at the boundaries of their own skills, repeatedly stranding themselves in the unknown without a map except for an unquenchable thirst for that new, thrilling sound they've never before heard.

Need a creative outlet? Try this inventive new way to learn to play piano.

Get lifetime access to training content that will have you tickling the ivories in no time.

  • Playing a musical instrument has been shown to benefit your brain more than any other activity.
  • Benefits include increased memory and reading skills, increased blood flow in your brain, and a reduction in stress and depression.
  • Performing music has also been shown to help reduce your risk of dementia.
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