Switching on the radio to listen to silky-voiced DJs introducing auto-tuned top-40 music by perfectly preened pop stars with perfume lines or watching tonally challenged innocents with stars in their eyes being led to the slaughter in the cacophonous contemporary TV coliseum that is X Factor, one could be mistaken for thinking that a large percentage of human beings are far from musical. However, according to Henkjan Honing, professor of Cognitive and Computational Musicology at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), we are all musical creatures and this sets humans apart from the other creatures roaming this planet.*
Music Cognition is a relatively new field of study, having risen in prominence in the last 20 years. It uses an interdisciplinary approach, combining fields ranging from computer science and psychology to chemistry and medicine, in its quest to understand the cognitive processes that underpin musical behaviour, such as perception, comprehension, memory, attention and performance.
Honing gave a highly entertaining presentation in the Glass House of Science and Scholarship on 3 September 2012, an event which saw UvA professors deliver lectures to the general public in the centre of Amsterdam. Spectators were treated to videos of apes playing percussion, parakeets dancing in time to the Backstreet Boys and babies wired up with electrodes so that they resembled tiny Russian cosmonauts (although Honing was quick to assure us they were not harmed or in any discomfort).
In this interview, Prof. Honing gives more insight into his innovative research, which has attracted worldwide media attention and explains the science behind man’s innate musicality and how it can be harnessed for the common good.
* It should be noted that Prof. Honing also pointed out in a previous lecture that 4% of humans suffer from amusia, a musical disorder that manifests mainly as a defect in processing pitch. This may explain top-40 radio and X Factor.