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Language, Vision, and MusicReview - Language, Vision, and Music
Selected Papers from the 8th International Workshop on the Cognitive Science of Natural Language Processing, Galway, Ireland 1999
by Paul Mc Kevitt, Seán Ó Nualláin and Conn Mulvihill
John Benjamins, 2002
Review by Daniel Mauro
Oct 22nd 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 43)

Language, Vision and Music is a collection of 30 articles selected from the Eighth International Workshop on the Cognitive Science of Natural Language Processing (CSNLP-8). Is rhythm an important property in language, music and vision? How does one model creativity in computers? What is the nature of synaesthesia? Can we improve human computer interface design by integrating the linguistic and visual modalities? These are just a few of the kinds of questions to which one may find interesting answers in this wide-ranging collection of papers. Language, vision and music appear to share a number of fundamental attributes, among them, hierarchical organization, recursivity, ambiguity and systematicity. The existence of such shared properties indicates that language, music and vision - though seemingly distinct as modes of understanding and interacting with the world - could be instantiations of a general purpose cognitive system. In the context of this multimodal theme, researchers from a variety of disciplines were invited to contribute papers that examined interrelationships between language, vision and music and explored the integration of these modalities in intelligent multimedia computer systems.

The resulting collection of papers is divided into three topic sections: Part I: Language & vision; Part II: Language & music; Part III: Creativity. The articles span a variety of themes and approaches in both human (e.g., synaesthesia, semantic priming) and artificial systems (e.g., virtual perception, intellimedia). To give prospective readers a sense of what is presented in this broad array of highly diverse and specialized topics, I have included brief summaries of the general content of each of the three main sections, while providing individual commentaries on (nine) articles that warranted special attention because of their originality, interest or relevance to the field. Readers who would prefer an abbreviated version of this review may forego the article summaries and skip to the last few paragraphs where I provide a general overview of the collection.

Part I is edited by Paul McKevitt and brings together thirteen articles that integrate language and vision. Nine of these papers investigate or are relevant to MultiModal Systems (also known as Intelligent MultiMedia) while the remaining four articles address human topics. The first paper describes how General Systems Theory can be applied to the problem of multimedia integration. The next three articles examine various multimodal language understanding applications. Five more papers investigate computer applications, architectures and models of multimodal integration in human computer interface design, focusing mainly on speech and gesture. One article looks at the relation of speech and vision in aphasic individuals. The final three contributions explore the phenomenon of synaesthesia. I review four articles from this section.

John Connolly examines the problem of multimedia integration from the perspective of General Systems Theory (GST). Multimedia integration is an attempt to combine different communication media (e.g., speech, vision) into a coherent whole while GST is aimed at discovering general properties of different systems, of which multimedia systems is an example. In GST, context and holism turn out to be of paramount importance when designing complex systems: one needs to understand the nature of the subsystems, how the subsystems interact and where to form natural boundaries between those subsystems. In engineering, General Systems Theory can be applied in one of two ways: either as a solid engineering tool, or as a set of ideas that can be used to uncover new aspects of a particular subject. This paper is an example of the second approach. Connolly introduces a railway map as an example of a system whose constituents include both linguistic (names of stations) and non-linguistic components (network of railway lines). Seen as a simple system that is made up of mutually interdependent subsystems, the map helps to illustrate basic GST principles such as 'the whole is more than the sum of the parts' or 'each component of the system has an effect upon the whole.' Throughout the paper, Connolly uses the map example to demonstrate the kinds of design issues that can occur in a multimedia context and how the GST approach would deal with those issues. He provides persuasive arguments that a systems methodology, precisely because it emphasizes understanding how the components of a holistic system interrelate, is particularly relevant to the kinds of issues associated with multimedia integration. As an introduction to both General Systems Theory and the challenges of multimedia integration, the article provides a good backdrop for the other multimedia papers that follow. 

John Gurney, Elizabeth Klipple and Robert Winkler describe "A simulated language understanding agent using virtual perception." Their software agent uses virtual perception to perform a number of 'spoken language navigation tasks' in a virtual reality (VR) environment that simulates helicopter movement through realistic looking terrain. The software agent acts as an interface between the virtual world and the human by interpreting spoken commands and implementing them as corresponding flight patterns that can be visually monitored by the user. Getting a computer to perform realistic navigation tasks (like tracking and following moving objects) using only speech based commands is exceedingly difficult with current human computer interfaces (HCIs). Accordingly, the authors motivate their "agent-based approach to HCI" by comparing their agent to a conventional database model. With the traditional approach, following simple navigational commands in a dynamic environment is cumbersome because the individual subtasks often conflict with one another. The difficulty, say Gurney and colleagues, is that the database behaves as though it were an "omniscient wizard" who knows where everything is in the virtual world yet is limited to adjusting dials and buttons in response to various navigational directives (e.g., go south for 5 km) -- in other words, it is too detached from the virtual world. The authors' innovative solution to this problem is to allow the software agent to see that world from the human point of view. They purposefully cripple the agent so that it knows only what a person would know rather than having a perfect, yet unrealistic knowledge of the virtual environment. The result is an interface whose representations match much better with the user's representations. Once the tasks are organized in a way that is consistent with how humans perceive them, a lot of the interference between apparently conflicting actions disappears. In addition to demonstrating a software agent that overcomes the problems of a challenging multimodal domain, Gurney, Klipple and Winkler provide a compelling example of how the perceptual and linguistic nuances of human-human interaction can provide insight into the problems of designing intelligent human computer interfaces.

Named after Douglas Adam's science fiction story, A. L. Cohen-rose and S. B. Christiansen's paper "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" describes a simple system called the Guide, which answers natural language queries about places to eat and drink in the form of short stories. A person using the system presents a spoken or typed request to the system. Perhaps they want to know where they can get a good organic meal in town. The guide parses the query and attempts to interpret the intention of the user. Storytelling agents then access relevant 'smarticles' from a knowledge base of previously written reviews about restaurant topics. The smarticles are rated and sorted based on previous usage of the system and then graphically presented to the user. Cohen-rose and Christiansen's contextual approach to intelligent multimedia was motivated by limitations in traditional web-searching facilities. Most of us are familiar with the typical information searching experience: you type in some key words and a list of sites appear; however, you're never quite sure which one might contain the precise information you are searching for and the information is often spread across multiple links. While the authors' research is potentially useful from an engineering or commercial standpoint, it is unlikely to provide any new theoretical insights into the nature of cognition or language. Having said that, Cohen-rose and Christiansen are not focused on developing new cognitive theories here -- their primary aim is to improve on the performance and user-friendliness of conventional search engines. The Guide has some definite advantages over such systems: it is contextually driven and therefore more consistent with how humans process information, it can handle complex full sentence queries relieving the user of inefficient key word searches and it customizes its responses to the user. Although it would be difficult to furnish the Guide with a contextual 'story-oriented' knowledge base that could handle the breadth of topics available on the Internet, the Guide nevertheless has the potential to become a practical information tool within limited domains.

Sean Day examines the unusual perceptual phenomenon known as synaesthesia. In synaesthesia, sensory modalities are confounded so that the perception of one modality (e.g., sounds) will be accompanied by another physically nonexistent sensory modality (e.g., colors). In some synaesthetes, for example, the sounds of musical instruments will cause them to see particular colors. For Day, who is himself a synaesthete, the sound of a piano will produce a sky-blue cloud about a yard in front of him while a tenor saxophone is accompanied by an "image of electric purple neon lights" (170). Thus, the synaesthetic sensation is generally added to the primary perception rather than replacing it. Synaesthesia can be broken down into two basic types, what Day refers to as "synaesthesia proper" in which stimuli to a sensory input trigger sensations in other sensory modalities, and the more common "cognitive synaesthesia," whereby culturally determined categorizational systems are associated with arbitrary sensations (e.g., colored letters or numbers). After a review of some basic facts, Day traces the ideas of numerous ancient astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers suggesting that their theories about correspondences between planetary bodies and musical intervals provided "initial cornerstones to later theories on synaesthesia" (173). Day goes on to examine a number of interesting synaesthetic phenomena, including the incidence of rare forms of synaesthesia, the role of synaesthesia in composers, the notion of synaesthetic universals and the nature of drug-induced synaesthesia. All in all, Day's paper provides a good overview of synaesthesia while attempting to address some common misconceptions about the area. The article is particularly useful because it is written by someone who is himself a synaesthete - having first hand knowledge of the phenomena one would expect he has a better idea than theorists about "What synaesthesia is and is not." Regardless of your theoretical predispositions, synaesthesia is one of those appealing topics in cognitive science, the study of which is likely to offer insights into the complex nuances of multimodal integration in humans.

Part II is edited by Seán Ó Nualláin and brings together twelve articles on language and music. This section covers a wide variety of themes including: a metaphoric approach to language and music; a semiotic analysis of music and language; auditory structuring as a basis for musical aptitude and reading abilities; a comparison of priming effects in music and language; the role of conscious and subconscious processes for interpreting language and music; musical fragments (emons) as self-contained emotionally-based information units; the lexicon of the conductor's face; virtual operas that integrate music, text and image; multimedia (language, vision, sounds) compositions that are 'improvised' within a shared virtual environment; tonality in Irish music; the relationship between rhythm and language comprehension in children; and a comparison of contours in speech and European musical traditions. I review four papers from this section.

In "Auditory structuring in explaining dyslexia,"KaiKarma introduces a simple auditory procedure that can serve as both a musical aptitude test and a diagnostic tool for predicting reading performance in dyslexic individuals. As defined by Karma, 'auditory structuring' is an intermediate-level auditory capacity that involves perceiving temporal relationships between tones. She argues that auditory structuring is an ideal measure of musical aptitude because it captures the important relations between auditory elements while being relatively culture neutral. Karma's structurally-based musical aptitude test consists of (nonmusical) sequences of alternating high/low notes and long/short notes. Having established the relevance of auditory structuring within the musical domain, she goes on to suggest that auditory structuring can also serve as a powerful construct for dyslexia. Karma attempts to validate this idea experimentally by testing dyslexics on her custom designed musical aptitude test and a related auditory/visual matching task. In keeping with initial hypotheses, she finds that dyslexics perform significantly worse than control subjects on the structural auditory tests and that combining the results of these tasks increases the ability to predict (based on performance measures) those subjects which are dyslexic. Karma's approach is generally consistent with recent theories suggesting that certain perceptual language disorders are due to auditory temporal processing deficits (see any of Tallal's post 1980 work); however she tends to emphasize the structuring qualities of auditory processes rather than deficits in the rate of temporal processing. In addition to highlighting the auditory temporal bases of dyslexia, Karma's work provides evidence for a putative structural link between the auditory underpinnings of music and language and serves as a nice example of a research paradigm that draws together theory, experiment and application.

Barbara Tillmann and Emmanuel Bigand compare priming phenomena in language and music. Music and language are both examples of systems in which discrete elements are hierarchically organized into complex patterns according to structuring principles. Innate knowledge of these structural patterns allows experienced listeners to develop expectancies that can influence the processing of ongoing musical and linguistic events. Existing semantic priming research shows that target words are more easily identified when following a prime word from a previous context. For example, the target word 'bread' is processed more quickly when it follows the semantically related word 'butter' than when it follows a semantically unrelated word like 'doctor.' Similar priming paradigms have been established in the musical realm in which single chord or multiple chord sequences are found to facilitate the processing of a target chord. Tillmann and Bigand directly compare these harmonic and semantic priming paradigms by organizing results from studies in each domain according to the kind of context used (e.g., local contexts involve a single word/chord, global contexts involve sentences or chord sequences and scrambled global contexts involve interchanging element order). Briefly, general findings reveal that whereas local and global contexts tend to produce similar priming effects in music and language, combined and scrambled global contexts show divergent priming patterns across domains. The authors conclude by discussing two cognitive models that could account for such differences. Tillmann and Bigand are important contributors to the field of music cognition. Their review of the music and semantic priming literature is well organized, concise and provides a comprehensive picture of the subject area without focusing unnecessarily on the details of any particular study. However, the question arises as to whether priming effects can sort out more subtle nuances of musical and linguistic processing. Although expectancies have been purported to reflect syntactic musical principles, it is unclear to what extent the harmonic priming paradigm is able to adequately reflect the essential properties of musical structures, given that those structures make substantially different contributions to 'meaning' compared with linguistic expressions. As noted by Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983), one must be cautious when imposing a linguistic approach onto a musical domain - the priming paradigm may be a valuable tool for comparing the structural principles of language and music, but it should be appropriately adapted to the peculiarities of those domains.

Paul Nemirovsky and Glorianna Davenport explore the fascinating idea that artistic mediums (e.g., music or video) can be packaged into self-contained units that convey information. They have developed something they refer to as the emon, "a small discrete unit of aesthetic expression" which elicits predictable emotional effects that can guide or direct human behavior in background information channels (255). The authors' emon approach was implemented and tested in their GuideShoes system, a wearable information device that allows a user to navigate in an open space (e.g., streets) by using musical emons as emotional cues. Nemirovsky and Davenport motivate their emon approach to information delivery with a hypothetical travel scenario. They ask you to imagine that you are a traveler in a foreign city with no street names where you cannot speak the language. Luckily you have your GuideShoes and headset. You tell it where you want to go, whereupon GuideShoes connects to the Internet and plugs in your current and target destinations. "As you start walking down the street, your headset starts playing music. . . Musical patterns (emons) provide you with information regarding the correctness of your direction" (256). Can musical structures be used to communicate precise emotional meanings? The relationship between pattern and meaning has long been of central interest to cognitive scientists and musicologists. Because music lacks a precise semantics, theorists are doubtful that music can be used to convey specific meanings, especially given that listeners may derive different meanings from the same musical stimuli. Nemirovsky and Davenport's emon research challenges this widely accepted notion and suggests that using aesthetic forms as self-contained emotionally-based information sources can potentially simplify our perceptual world, particularly in situations when we are faced with multiple cognitive demands. Limited to the realm of theory, this idea might sound implausible. However, by incorporating emons into their GuideShoes system, they have validated their information approach in a real-world setting. Nemirovsky and Davenport's emon research raises some fundamental theoretical issues involving the role of musical structures as emotional information carriers. The paper is timely because both emotion and music are important fields of inquiry that have been traditionally neglected in mainstream cognitive science.

Dilys Treharne examines relationships between language comprehension and basic rhythmic abilities in children. According to Treharne, such relationships exist because rhythm is fundamental to language development - a "matrix of communication skills" evolves that includes not only spoken language, but also conceptual development, motor skills and social skills. Treharne argues that rhythm forms a scaffolding upon which this communication matrix rests. In this paper, she explores the link between rhythm and language comprehension within an experimental setting. Treharne's experiments reveal correlations between children's auditory verbal comprehension and their ability to imitate rhythms, to judge the similarity of perceived rhythms and to infer missing words from a sentence frame based on the rhythmic pattern of the word. Children who are good at imitating and recognizing rhythms appear to be better at understanding the meaning of sentences. In keeping with a growing literature on the subject, Treharne's study provides additional support for the idea that basic perceptual rhythmic abilities are an essential ingredient of language comprehension. Combined with the idea of a communication matrix, Treharne's finding that auditory verbal comprehension is correlated with both "non-verbal rhythmic awareness andthe ability to understand incomplete sentences using rhythmic aspects of prosody"provides a theoretical framework for language development that may have important clinical applications (322). For example, children with certain language disorders could be trained to use prosodic cues to facilitate comprehension.

One contribution to the section on language and music, "On tonality in Irish traditional music" seemed a little out of place. Though well written and informative, Ó Nualláin himself describes the paper as dealing with the "political conditions that hampered the full harmonic development of Irish music" (12). Nowhere in this paper are there direct comparisons between music and language and thus it is unclear how the paper fits into the multimodal language processing theme.

Part III on creativity is introduced by Conn Mulvihill. This section includes a summary report of a panel session that explored the question "What is creativity" followed by four papers on creativity. The first paper explores the analogical foundations of creativity in language and the arts, tracing human history to find a decent model of human computation. The second contribution examines the factors involved in creative team performance within an economic context. The third article takes a cultural approach to creativity, focusing on the centrality of humor and metaphor in the Tarahumara Indian religion of Northern Mexico. The final paper, which I review here, offers a computational perspective on creativity.

Conn Mulvihill and Micheál Colhoun take on the challenging question "Is creativity algorithmic." The answer to this question has important implications for computational approaches to cognition, as it would allow us to specify whether creative thinking can, in principle, be programmed into computers. Mulvihill and Colhoun provide an interesting and well thought out approach to the topic of creativity in the context of language. According to the authors, in languages where form (medium) and content (message) mix is where we most often find creativity. They cite examples of this mixing of form and content in the creative arenas of art, philosophy and biology. In the visual arts, for example, the content conveyed in a painting will be influenced by the form (e.g., impressionism). Does this interplay of form and content extend to computers? A number of early artificial intelligence (AI) programs designed with a computer program called Lisp (e.g., Lenat) produced interesting results that were initially taken to be creative, but were ultimately found to be attributable to the richness of the representational medium. In general, Mulvihill and Colhoun find that current computer languages appear not to have the capacity for creativity, at least according to their form/content requirement; algorithms can provide yes/no answers to questions of form (e.g., compilers), but not to questions of content, a limitation which they suggest may be inherent in the properties of logical symbol systems themselves. Despite this apparent drawback, Mulhivill and Colhoun propose that any (computer) language that did support creativity would be marked by two additional properties (ambiguity and reflectivity) and conclude with some thoughts on modeling the creative process.

After reading this short section on creativity, one should certainly not expect to come away with a precise notion of the fundamental nature of creativity. Creativity is a challenging and little understood area of human cognition that has been tackled within many disciplines. Indeed, according to one of the contributors (Rickards) to this section, a universally accepted definition has yet to be found. Notwithstanding the lack of consensus on exactly what creativity is, this final section provides four interesting perspectives on the topic, with Mulvihill and Colhoun's paper on algorithms and Klein's paper on the analogical foundations of creativity offering two particularly promising approaches.

A guiding premise of this book is that an integrative approach to language, vision and music can inform us about the nature of both natural language and artificial communication systems and the complex interrelationships that exist between language, mind and machine. Contained in this volume are exciting examples of several sophisticated multimodal computer systems, architectures and interfaces, original experimental approaches relating language and music and some interesting work on the difficult topic of creativity. Several of the articles, particularly a few in the multimedia subset on vision and language, are presented by leaders in their field. An important question is whether any of these researchers successfully address one of the underlying themes outlined in the 'Call for Papers,' namely, the notion of a modality-independent general purpose cognitive system. Although few of the papers tackle this question directly, a potential answer can be gleaned from an examination of reoccurring themes. Of particular interest, the concept of rhythm (and related notions of timing and temporal processing) appears in several of the articles in this collection, not only in the section on language and music, where one would expect the theme to be addressed, but also in a couple of the multimedia papers. Rhythm, it seems, is not just a ubiquitous property in music and speech (e.g., prosody) but rather finds a wider application in the cognitive realm. As noted by Ipke Wachsmuth, one of the contributors to the section on language and vision, "observations in diverse research areas suggest that human communicational behavior is significantly rhythmic in nature" (118). In face-to-face communication, speech, gesture and movement are highly coordinated across multiple levels of temporal organization. Thus, rhythm may be an important structuring and synchronizing principle underpinning the temporal aspects of cognition and therefore relevant to research linking language, vision and music in both natural and artificial domains.

Some cognitive researchers might question the inclusion of music in this collection as an 'important' cognitive modality having the same status as that of language or vision. The ability to perceive music is certainly not essential for our everyday understanding of the world in the same way that vision and language are. At the same time, there is no culture in recorded human history that has been without music. Despite the apparent centrality of music in human activities, as a field of study, music has traditionally been accorded a less important role in cognitive science relative to other domains. However, a recent upsurge in the cognitive neuroscience of music literature appears to be changing this state of affairs. Increasingly, there is evidence that even passive musical activities require complex underlying processes and dedicated biological substrates and it has been suggested that understanding the intricacies of musical processing may provide insight into general properties of the mind and brain. In light of this possibility, it is commendable that the conference organizers chose to include music as part of their multimodal theme; indeed, it is promising that there were a sufficient number of high quality contributions warranting a whole subsection on language and music.

What I found most appealing about this volume is the number of research projects that successfully blended theory, experiment and application -- an ideal that is strived for, but often not evident in the subdisciplines of cognitive science. As the papers in this collection employ a range of theoretical and methodological approaches for understanding the integrated processing of language, vision and music in both natural and computational contexts, there should be something of interest here for almost everyone (studying cognition). That statement should be qualified, however. As with most reading endeavors, what you get out of this book will depend in part on what you bring to it. While many of the articles are well written, interesting and self-contained, quite a few of them presuppose a basic familiarity with the subject matter. As such, the book is geared primarily to cognitive scientists and those with backgrounds in language, music and computer related or engineering disciplines (particularly intelligent multimedia systems), although individuals with an interest in specific topics (e.g., creativity, synaesthesia) may benefit from a reading of selected papers.

At 433 pages, the book can be a little tough going, especially given that each of its 30 articles are quite packed with information. In taking on this collection of specialized papers, readers new to the subject matter may find themselves at times overwhelmed in a sea of details and potentially challenged in having to constantly shift gears from one conceptual mode of thought to another. However, the effort required to get through these papers will be rewarded with a better appreciation of both the range and difficulty of some central issues in a thriving area of cognitive science. This collection is valuable in that it brings together a wide range of interesting and diverse topics under the common rubric of multimodality, an approach that promises to bear intellectual fruit in the advancement of general-purpose cognitive theories. Human minds have the capacity to effortlessly integrate linguistic, visual and musical stimuli in real time. Consequently, progress in cognitive science can only come about when researchers are able to study these and other perceptual and cognitive modalities in a truly integrated fashion.


© 2004 Daniel Mauro


Daniel Mauro is a senior PhD student in the cognitive science program at Carleton University (Ottawa) and specializes in auditory temporal processing and musical cognition.


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