Research Statement

Research Foci

My work addresses what I perceive to be the most significant research gaps in fundamental areas of psychoacoustics and musical aesthetics. Areas of interest have included, for example:

  • The aesthetic value of the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence in music.
  • The aesthetic value and perceptibility of acoustic reflection symmetry.

In my experimental design, I harness the power of sonification, or the creation of acoustic graphs, in order to address research questions systematically using mathematics. My experiments bridge the frontiers of art and science, and redefine the term experimental music.

Previous Projects

In my dissertation research in the Media Arts and Technology Department (MAT) at UCSB (Doctoral Advisor: Dr. Curtis Roads), I investigated the aesthetic value of the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence in music. These two mathematical objects currently enjoy great popularity among composers. The aesthetic value of the golden ratio has been the subject of multiple scientific investigations in the visual domain, but before an experiment conducted in 2013, no research had been carried out in an effort to determine its aesthetic significance in the acoustic domain. The experiment, which involved 170 participants, was designed to address the following research question in particular: Do sonifications of mathematical objects closely related to the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio hold some special aesthetic significance or advantage over less closely related sonified mathematical objects? The experiment utilized a two-alternative forced choice method in which participants were presented with two sonifications and asked to choose which they found more aesthetically pleasing. The stimuli were five pairs of sonifications. One sonified mathematical object in each pair was closely related to the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio, whereas the other was not. The results showed that, on the whole, the sonifications of mathematical objects closely related to the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence were less aesthetically pleasing than those they were pitted against (Wilcoxon signed rank test, p = 0.021).

In November 2014, I began working remotely in cooperation with Dr. Claus-Christian Carbon in the Department of General Psychology and Methodology at the Universität Bamberg in Germany. From February to June 2015, I carried out an experiment involving 28 volunteer participants designed to determine the perceptibility of acoustic reflection symmetry (e.g. when a series of notes is played then subsequently repeated backwards). The experiment was conceived as a pre-study for a more comprehensive experiment to be carried out at a later date. Participants were presented with a series of nine symmetrical sonifications, nine partially symmetrical sonifications (with approximately half of the mirrored elements changed), and nine asymmetrical sonifications. The participants were asked to identify the sonifications by ear as belonging to one of those three categories after one listening. The results of the pre-study suggest that humans possess some ability to ascertain acoustic reflection symmetry (two-tailed t test, p < 0.001).

Future Directions

I am currently mulling studies designed to tackle the following research questions:

  • What is the aesthetic value and perceptibility of common contrapuntal devices such as inversion (e.g. where a melody is played upside down) or retrograde (e.g. where a melody is played backwards)? If such devices hold some aesthetic significance, is this affected by (or correlated with) knowledge of their implementation?
  • What is the effect of rudimentary mathematical understanding of the mathematical objects being sonified on the aesthetic value of sonifications, or more generally: What is the effect of knowledge of the structure of a composition on its aesthetic value?

Answering these and other questions will help close some significant research gaps that have existed in part because of a lack of precise and systematic techniques to approach such research problems. This stands in contrast to similar research carried out in the visual domain, where the use of mathematics and algorithmic techniques in the creation of stimuli is more common. The lack of research tools in the acoustic domain has left us with a rather lopsided account of perception in general, with heavy emphasis placed on the visual. The application of sonification in experimental psychology provides an entirely new way to systematically investigate certain perceptual and aesthetic phenomena in the acoustic domain. The primary advantage of using sonification of data sets and mathematical objects in empirical research is that the stimuli are by nature easily quantifiable and comparable to other stimuli; this stands in contrast to the type of stimuli typically used in research in the perception and aesthetics of music.