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Welcome to the Witek Lab! We are based at the Universtiy of Birmingham UK, and study music cognition and philosophy of mind, with a focus on rhythm, timing, body-movement and affect.

Rhythm and timing are musical features that can affect how we feel and how we move. For example, a rhythmic pattern with complex cross-rhythmic tendencies can invite dancing, through the sensation of groove. And when synchronising our movements with others – as when dancing together in a club or playing together in band rehearsal – we can feel as if the boundaries between us and the others start to become blurred. At the Witek Lab, we study the cognitive and socio-affective mechanisms that might explain these experiences.

We use a variety of different methods to study such phenomena, including neuroimaging, neurophysiology, motion-capture, perceptual experiments, qualitative interviews and music analysis. By combining these techniques, we can better undertand how processes in the brains, bodies, environments and instruments of musicians and music listeners work together to produce complex temporal and affective musical experiences.

People

Maria A. G. Witek

Dr Maria Witek is Senior Birmingham Fellow at the Department of Music, School of Languages, Cultures, Art History and Music, University of Birmingham. She has worked and studied across music and cognitive science since finishing her undergraduate degree in musicology in Oslo. She completed an MA in Music Psychology at Sheffield University, and a doctorate in Music at the University of Oxford. Before coming to Birmingham, she was Assistant Professor at the Center for Music in the Brain, Aarhus University, Denmark.

Dr Witek’s main interest is in researching the psychology, cognitive science and cognitive philosophy of musical experience, with a focus on rhythm, timing, emotion and body-movement. Much of her work is centred on trying to understand how dance music experiences and practices emerge from interactions between embodied, neural, musical and social processes. To date, she has focused primarily on the study of groove – the pleasurable experience of wanting to move to music. She uses research methods from across experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, qualitative social psychology, digital music analysis and phenomenology.

Dr Witek is also a live coder, under the artist name mxwx. She performs and makes algorithmic dance music at Algoraves and other live coding events, using TidalCycles. These performances are often collaborative with other live coders making music and visuals. She is a member of the live coding duo Bad Circulation, alongside Antonio Roberts (aka hellocatfood).

Patti Nijhuis

Patti Nijhuis is a Research Fellow at the Department of Music, School of Languages, Cultures, Art History and Music, University of Birmingham. She is a cognitive neuroscientist investigating the neural underpinnings of perception-action processes in the context of music and rhythm. Over the next year she will be working on the “Embodied timing and disability in DJ practice” project to study the coordination of temporal processes between the brain, body and music.

Patti holds a Bachelor of Human Movement Sciences and a master of Sport Sciences from the university of Groningen, the Netherlands. Before coming to Birmingham, she undertook her PhD research in the field of cognitive neuroscience and music psychology at the MARCS institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University, Australia.

Patti’s research interests intersect music, rhythm, and movement. She is broadly interested in how humans interact with their environment. That is, how do we coordinate with sensory information or other people present in our environment? She uses brain imaging (EEG) and motion capture techniques to answer these questions at a neural-behavioural level. She has a particular expertise in motor cognition focusing on the coupling between neural and muscular activity, known as cortico-muscular coherence.

Dr Susan Min Li

Dr Min Li is a research fellow at the School of Psychology and the Department of Music at University of Birmingham. She studied BSc Psychology at the University of Kent and later a Research Master degree at the University of Birmingham, where she also completed her PhD with Prof. Alan Wing and Dr. Max Di Luca in 2018. She joined Prof. Lars Muckli’s lab in Glasgow as a postdoctoral researcher to use high-field fMRI to investigate how predictive information and illusory perception are represented in the visual system, in particular, the feedforward and feedback connectivity for numerosity perception. She returned to Birmingham to the BBSRC-funded Aging Touch project, to study how multisensory signals and expectation modulate our perceived roughness of surface textures. 

Her research interest is the computational understanding of sensory expectation and prediction, with a focus on processing spatiotemporal properties of multisensory stimuli. With psychophysical approach and Bayesian modelling, her work investigates how human brain perceives time and space for sensory estimates and action. She is currently working on the EPSRC-funded Augmented Reality Musical Ensemble project. She investigates the synchronisation of small ensemble players with behavioural measures such as motion capture and auditory recordings, together with computational models to understand and simulate the musician’s behaviour, and explores its implementation in virtual space as a music training tool. 

Toni A. Behtold

Toni is a music researcher, saxophone player and teacher born and raised in Germany, now based in Lucerne, Switzerland. He started playing saxophone at a young age and played in bands of all kinds during his teenage years. Toni went on to study jazz saxophone in Nuremberg with Steffen Schorn and Hubert Winter, started teaching woodwinds, and was for example a member of the national German jazz orchestra (BuJazzO).  Afterwards he relocated to Switzerland, where he obtained master degrees in jazz performance and education at the Lucerne School of Music. He played thousands of concerts in Europe and overseas, mostly with small jazz ensembles or big bands and played on over 30 records. Since 2013, he is working as a researcher at the Competence Centre for Music Performance Research in Lucerne with a focus on groove, rhythm, jazz, and harmony. In 2019, he started a PhD in Music at the University of Birmingham.

In Toni’s PhD Project, ‘Groove and Catchiness in Popular Music,’ we investigate these two key characteristics of popular music with approaches from music psychology and music performance studies. Our basic hypotheses are that similar parameters are at work to promote groove and catchiness, and that these two can support each other. Music psychology defines the groove experience as pleasurable urge to move to music, but groove is also a structure, a layering of patterns. We bring these concepts together by examining how musical structures and other parameters evoke groove experiences. Despite being a major goal for popular music, research on catchiness is scarce and often reduced to memorability. In this project, we explore what catchiness encompasses and examine potential reasons why music is catchy. We conceived three consecutive work packages to investigate groove and catchiness from different angles. First, we conducted an interview study with musicians and producers to access expert knowledge on the topic. We combine this knowledge with existing literature to identify important musical and non-musical parameters and to substantiate our hypotheses. We investigate these hypotheses in an exploratory online listening experiment, followed by a second experiment that focuses on how different musical layers interact to promote groove and catchiness. 

Joseph Spinoza

Joe Spinoza is a London-born pianist and singer, now based in Birmingham, UK. Joe started learning the piano aged 6, and at 15 he gained a scholarship to the PianoMan scheme studying under concert pianist Richard Meyrick. At 18, Joe was awarded a scholarship to study for his BMus(Hons) in Classical Piano at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire under Philip Martin and Alasdair Beatson. In 2019, he studied for his MMus(Jazz) in Jazz Singing and Piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, under Sara Colman, Lee Gibson, Brigitte Beraha and Nikki Iles. Since 2020, Joe has been working toward his PhD on interaction in Jazz piano-vocal duo performance at the University of Birmingham.

Joe’s PhD project is focussed on exploring Jazz piano-vocal duo performance as a site for new developments on how we think about performer interaction. Jazz vocalists, and duo performance, are seldom explored in current literature. As someone who regularly performs on both sides of piano-vocal duos, Joe’s project seeks to understand what we can learn about interaction from this style of performance. The project involves triangulating data from digital analysis, performer interviews and musical transcriptions to create a developed image of the interactive process, and explore how interaction in a duo compares and contrasts with more commonly analysed small-band instrumental Jazz performances. The musical transcriptions and interviews also aim to serve as a historical and analytical account of the piano-vocal duo in Jazz.

Gabriella Vizzutti

Gabriella Vizzutti was born and raised in Seattle, Washington.  Vizzutti received her bachelor’s is Music Education from the University of Washington and spent several years teaching in Italy before pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Birmingham.  Vizzutti began studying classical violin at the age of 4 and percussion at the age of 12.  As an instrumentalist, she has played in various musical groups ranging from classical symphonic orchestra to rock & pop bands.  Her teaching abroad, however, is what sparked her curiousity to pursue a postgraduate degree via research in Music.

Gabriella’s research aims to compare the prosocial effects that result from collective music making to those resulting from interpersonal touch.  Vizzutti intends to gather data that highlights the effectiveness of music-making in promoting social cohesion and empathetic behaviour, and to demonstrate how music may be used as a social tool when interpersonal touch is otherwise impossible or forbidden (i.e., distance required due to Covid-19). Should music have a similar impact on behaviour as touch, music-making may very well be recognized as a vital tool in emotional and social development in children and infants, and a means to encourage social connection in adults.

Embodied Timing and Disability in DJ Practice

Image description: Overhead view of analogue turntables, with added colouring in purple, green, pink and red. Two hands are seen adjusting a record on one of the turntables. Photo credit: Maria Witek

Embodied timing and disability in DJ practice

Between February 2022 and August 2023, the Witek lab will be working on a new project entitled ‘Embodied timing and disability in DJ practice’. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

DJing is a sophisticated musical skill that requires a musician to perceive and manipulate multiple, continuously changing rhythmic patterns at the same time. The synchronisation of two or more recorded tracks playing simultaneously is an embodied activity involving the coordination of processes occurring in the body, the brain, the turntables and the sonic patterns in the music. However, we do not yet know how these processes interact to make this skill possible. Furthermore, the exclusion of disabled musicians from academic research means that we know little about musical embodiment in the context of disability.

This project applies methods from across music cognition, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy of mind, dance music studies and disability studies to study the interaction of temporal processes in the brain, body and musical instruments of both disabled and non-disabled DJs. Based on a theoretical foundation in embodied models of mind, the research will involve measuring neural processes in the brain, movements in the body and timing information from the music and the turntables during DJing, as well as collecting qualitative interview data from disabled DJs, using participatory research methods. The research will culminate in a workshop where the project researchers and participants will work with Drake Music, the UK’s leading charity focusing on disability, music and technology, and Native Instruments, a world-leading developer of DJ instruments, to translate the research to advance more accessible DJ tools and environments. In this way, the project will contribute to making steps towards a more inclusive dance music culture

ARME Project

Image description: Photo shows The Coull Quartet playing with motion-capture markers on their string instruments. They are surrounded by motion-capture cameras. Photo credit: Maria Witek

Augmented Reality Music Ensemble (ARME)

The ARME project is funded by the EPSRC and will run from September 2021 – August 2024. The project is a collaboration between University of Birmingham (Max DiLuca, Alan Wing, Maria Witek), Birmingham City University (Ryan Stables) and Warwick University (Mark Elliott).

In musical ensembles such as piano duets, jazz trios, string quartets, rock groups, samba bands, and drum circles, there is no single stable reference for performance timing and musicians must time their performance to each other. This collective timing requires practice, but group rehearsals are not always feasible, leaving musicians to practice solo for much of the time. One established alternative to group rehearsal is to follow a recording of a group playing, with one track omitted. This form of practice leaves out the interactive and mutually adaptive elements of a group rehearsal. We will develop a system that creates virtual musicians based on audio-visual recordings of professional players, with timing patterns that are individually modulated in real-time and that can dynamically synchronise to each other to maintain ensemble, as happens in a real performance. We will allow the user to learn by employing their own instrument interacting with virtual musicians and so progressively improve their musical skills. Such a system not only makes it possible to practise ensemble performance in situations where partners are not available; it also allows the real musician to individually control the timing adjustability of each of the virtual musicians as well as to measure his/her own adjustment characteristics.

Our point of departure for this project is classical string duos, trios, and quartets since these are a relatively standard format and they introduce essential challenges that need to be overcome for a more generalised model of ensemble timing with larger groups. However, the outcomes will likely be applicable to a variety of instrumental ensembles and musical genres. Based on an analysis of string players’ synchronisation and coordination in different musical conditions, we will develop a near real-time model of individual players’ timing characteristics, enabling the development of a system that can adapt note timing to the dynamic evolution of the performance. Through one of our industrial partners, PartPlay, we will have access to recordings of world-leading quartet performances, giving users the experience of playing using their personal string instrument with a virtual version of some of the most skilled professional musicians.

The virtual component of the experience will include both audio and video recordings, offering a multisensory, immersive and realistic rehearsal where every performance is unique and adapted to the skills of the individual. In particular, the system is expected to make a significant contribution to distance-learning musical tuition. Covid-19 makes the e-learning implications particularly relevant, but the system will also offer music students who are otherwise home-bound due to disability greater access to ensemble practice. Furthermore, expansions of the technologies developed in the project may impact the entertainment industry, for example, for mixed reality performance.

See project website for more details.