Roger go to yellow three: choral composition to explore the cocktail party effect

Musicians are helping scientists to understand how our brains can focus listening attention amidst a room of background noise with performances of a new experimental choral composition.

'Roger go to yellow three', produced with support from a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, is an original work of music drama developed by Christopher Fox (Brunel University) and Edward Wickham (Cambridge University), artistic director of vocal group The Clerks, in collaboration with neuroscientists working in the field of linguistics and cognitive psychology.

Lasting approximately 15 minutes, the work is intended to explore the problems of 'auditory streaming', the phenomenon by which single lines of speech or music can be understood within a complex auditory environment, also known as the 'cocktail party effect'.

Live performances of the work from The Clerks will be used to collect experimental data in a live scenario, with audiences invited to offer feedback at the end of the show.

There is a considerable amount of work currently being done by biologists, neurologists and linguists on auditory perception in complex auditory environments. These environments may range from those where certain types of background noise obscure or interfere with a single auditory stream, such as an announcement in a busy train station, to those where several intelligible auditory streams are having to be processed at once, for example at a lively dinner party. However, little is known about how the brain interprets music in such complex scenarios.

Edward Wickham explains the motivation behind the project: "One of our main aims is to better understand how the mind perceives multi-layered music. Polytextual composition is commonplace in many repertories - the Medieval motet, for example, and many vocal works from the post-1945 avant-garde. However the perceptual principles involved in the comprehension of music with many texts operating at the same time has not been interrogated with any particular consistency."

Christopher Fox adds: "In addition, we hope that this work will be of particular relevance and interest to the hearing-impaired community. Trying to hone our ears in on a particular conversation or piece of music amidst a noisy room is hard enough for people without hearing problems, but for those with hearing impairments it can be particularly problematic. We hope that our findings will contribute to a greater understanding of music perception among the hearing-impaired."

Professor Sarah Hawkins of the Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge, who collaborated on the project, said: "It is rare that research scientists have the opportunity to work with such original and enriching material, especially in parallel with controlled laboratory experiments. These performances will be of enormous value in guiding our research into how people understand speech and singing."

Each performance of 'Roger go to yellow three' will be presented alongside recitals of Medieval and Renaissance works, to introduce the audience to the rich repertory of polytextual music. At the end, audiences will be invited to fill in a questionnaire relating to their experience, which will provide useful data for investigations into how the brain separates sounds.

Performances

Friday 28 October, 18.00
Whipple Museum, Cambridge
Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH
Free tickets. This event is part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

Thursday 9 February 2012, 19.30
St Paul's Hall, University of Huddersfield
Queensgate, Huddersfield HD1 3DH
Performances are free to the public and will last approximately one hour.