DLF 13/14: Honing

DLF 2013/14: Henkjan Honing
Henkjan Honing is Professor of Music Cognition from the University of Amsterdam. He was awarded the fifth Distinguished Lorentz Fellowship and will hold this position for the academic year 2013/14.

Research Project
Honing will explore what cognitive science and biology can reveal about the origins of music and musicality. Many studies on the evolution of music focus on the question of what defines music: Can birdsong, the song structure of humpback whales, a Thai elephant orchestra, or a gibbon duet be considered music? In trying to answer these questions, it is important to separate the notions of ‘music’ and ‘musicality’. Musicality can be defined as a natural, spontaneously developing trait based on and constrained by our cognitive system, whereas music is a social and cultural construct that is built on this musicality. However, it is still a challenge to demarcate precisely what makes up this trait we call ‘musicality’. What cognitive mechanisms are involved in perceiving, making and appreciating music? How might they have evolved? In other words, any study of the evolution of musicality first requires a characterization of the underlying cognitive and biological mechanisms.

Honing’s interdisciplinary workshop at the Lorentz Center in April 2014 carries the title “What Makes us Musical Animals? Cognition, Biology and the Origins of Musicality”. It will bring together cognition researchers from the fields of biology, musicology, neurology and psychology.

Honing: “Time and time again bridging to a new (sub)discipline or applying a novel method (ranging from controlled experiments to computer simulations) gave me richer insights on a particular problem. The cognitive sciences are in that respect intrinsically interdisciplinary. I suspect, the moment it might become cognitive science (i.e. singular instead of plural) it might become less versatile as a field. In my own field, music cognition, there have been strong interactions between music theory, (ethno)musicology, psychology and computer science. And more recently, neuroscience and cognitive biology have also become more and more concerned with the phenomenon of music. It makes music cognition a truly interdisciplinary field.”

Goals and Hopes
“In this fellowship I would like to explore the cognitive and biological literature related to what could be the core mechanisms of musicality: relative pitch and beat induction. I look forward to this new terrain and the conversations with the experts leading up to a workshop in April 2014, as well as assembling these experiences in a book describing the process of discovering what makes us musical animals.”

Can a gibbon duet be considered music?

Henkjan Honing obtained his PhD at City University (London) in 1991 with research into the representation of time and temporal structure in music. During the period between 1992 and 1997, he worked as a KNAW Research Fellow (Academieonderzoeker) at the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC), where he conducted a study on the formalization of musical knowledge.

Up until 2003, he worked as a research coordinator at the Nijmegen Institute for Cognition and Information (NICI) where he specialized in the computational modelling of music cognition. In 2007, he was appointed Associate Professor in Music Cognition at the University of Amsterdam’s Musicology capacity group. In 2010 he was awarded the KNAW-Hendrik Muller chair, designated on behalf of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). In 2012 he was appointed Professor of Cognitive and Computational Musicology at both the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Science of the UvA.

He is known as a passionate researcher in this new interdisciplinary field that gives us fundamental insights in the cognitive mechanisms underlying musicality. Honing has authored over 150 international publications in the area of music cognition and music technology. He recently published a book for the general public entitled Iedereen is muzikaal. Wat we weten over het luisteren naar muziek (Nieuw Amsterdam, 2009/2012), published in English as Musical Cognition: A Science of Listening (Transaction Publishers, 2011), and introduced at the 2011 edition of TEDxAmsterdam.

Henkjan Honing

Henkjan Honing writes about his research on his Music Cognition blog and on Twitter. He explores the topic of musicality in a (free) online webinar series at the University of the Netherlands (in Dutch).

In the Media
Henkjan Honing’s research featured in a number of articles and television programs. A selection can be found below.

Henkjan Honing will discuss what makes the human species a musical animal in a seminar on 10 October 2013, at NIAS. Honing will elaborate on the cognitive building blocks of musicality, and raise the question of whether elephants, whales and birds actually make music.

Research Results
Henkjan Honing has consolidated the findings resulting from his DLF fellowship and workshop in a joint publication. The resulting Theme Issue entitled Without it no music: cognition, biology and evolution of musicality, is published in Philosophical Transactions B. Read more about this publication on the Royal Society’s blog.