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The Cocktail Party Problem


Having trouble holding a conversation at a party?

Can’t manage to concentrate when surrounded by lots of other people talking?  

Distracted by other threads of conversations?

 Most of us would have to say ‘yes’ to all of these; it’s called ‘the cocktail party problem’ and it’s something which neuro-scientists and psychologists have been studying for years.  Now vocal ensemble The Clerks – with the help of an award from Wellcome Trust – are hoping to shed light on the problem from the perspective of music, in an innovative performance format combining specially commissioned music, scientific demonstrations and live listening tests. 

 The Clerks has, over the past twenty years, built up a formidable international reputation for their pioneering work on Medieval and Contemporary music and their innovative collaborations with sound artists and musicians from non-Western traditions.  In this, their latest project – entitled Roger go to yellow three … - they are working with Christopher Fox and scientists Professor Sarah Hawkins from Cambridge University and Dr Antje Heinrich from  the MRC Institute of Hearing Research.  The concert programme includes music by Fox – with libretti by Wickham – which demonstrate through various dramatic and humorous scenarios the challenges posed by auditory streaming or ‘the cocktail party problem’ as it is often referred to.  But it also has an interactive element: audiences will be tested on their ability to hear particular words, and the data from these tests will contribute towards further research in the field.

"It’s a concert, a light-hearted science lecture and a lab test all rolled into one,” says Wickham.  “And because this is a problem that audiences instantly recognise and have experienced, it really grabs the audience.  We’ve never seen audiences listening so intently; it’s unnerving.”

 For details of presentations, please visit Trust logo