All evidence indicates that music plays a significant role in every human society, both past and present. When we gather to celebrate, rejoice or mourn, music moves us in powerful ways. Caregivers around the world sing to infants to soothe, play with, and teach them. And yet we are just starting to uncover the profound impact music has on our brain, our emotions and our health.

Laurel Trainor is the director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind and plays principle flute in the Burlington Symphony Orchestra. Her research examines how music is processed in the brain, how musicians co-ordinate non-verbally and the role music plays in early development from multiple perspectives including perceptual, cognitive, social and emotional development.

Dan Bosnyak’s research studies neural plasticity in the human auditory system, in particular the neural correlates of tinnitus and peripheral hearing loss.

Concert laboratory

The Large Interactive Virtual Environment Laboratory (LIVELab) at McMaster University is a research concert hall. It functions as both a high-tech laboratory and theatre, opening up tremendous opportunities for research and investigation.

As the only facility of its kind in the world, the LIVELab is a 106-seat concert hall equipped with dozens of microphones, speakers and sensors to measure brain responses, physiological responses such as heart rate, breathing rates, perspiration and movements in multiple musicians and audience members at the same time.

Engineers, psychologists and clinician-researchers from many disciplines work alongside musicians, media artists and industry to study performance, perception, neural processing and human interaction.

In the LIVELab, acoustics are digitally controlled so the experience can change instantly from extremely silent with almost no reverberation to a noisy restaurant to a subway platform or to the acoustics of Carnegie Hall.

Studying musical experiences

At the LIVELab, researchers work on studies looking at how we make music together, how musicians co-ordinate their movements and synchronize their brains in order to perform and why people enjoy attending live performances when they could have better sound fidelity at home. By better understanding what is happening in the brain during music listening and playing, we can explore wider health benefits.

Real-time physiological data such as heart rate can be synchronized with data from other systems such as motion capture, and monitored and recorded from both performers and audience members. The result is that the reams of data that can now be collected in a few hours in the LIVELab used to take weeks or months to collect in a traditional lab. And having measurements of multiple people simultaneously is pushing forward our understanding of real-time human interactions.

Consider the implications of how music might help people with Parkinson’s disease to walk more smoothly or children with dyslexia to read better.

Behind the music

In order to examine how musicians communicate non-verbally, researchers at the LIVELab measured the body sway of each musician in a string quartet as they played together. Body sway is not necessary to play the instrument, but it reflects thought processes involved in planning what the musician is going to play next.

In order for musicians to stay together and create a cohesive performance, they need to predict what each other will do next in terms of their micro-timing, phrasing, dynamics and articulation. If they wait to hear what the other musicians do, it will be too late.

In our recent paper, published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, we used mathematical models to show that we could predict the body sway of one musician from how another musician had just moved, indicating that body sway reflects communication between the musicians. In addition, musicians assigned to be leaders during particular pieces influenced followers more than vice versa.

Another study shows that people experience live performance differently than pre-recorded performances, moving more frequently and synchronously during live music.