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Research Matters


Music "soothes the savage breast"

The McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind (MIMM) is an interdisciplinary group of researchers including psychologists, neuroscientists, music theorists, musicians, dancers, media artists, mathematicians, kinesiologists, health scientists, and engineers. MIMM's founding director, music psychologist Laurel Trainor, researches how music impacts our mind and bodies.
Music "soothes the savage breast"

Musicians perform in the LIVELab with their EEG rates recorded in the blue wall behind them.

Why does a toddler instinctively rock from side to side upon hearing music? Why do we tap our feet when we hear a favorite song? Why do we go to concerts when we can listen to music at home?

Music impacts our mind and our body in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. It really does “soothe the savage breast”, lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, helping us feel connected, even easing pain.

Music psychologist Laurel Trainor is known for her groundbreaking neuroscience research on musical development in children and infants. In a 2012 study, funded by the Grammy Foundation, she found that musical training benefits children even before they can walk or talk – one-year-olds who participated in interactive music classes with their parents smiled more, communicated better and showed larger and earlier brain responses to musical tones.

The founding director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind is poised to extend our knowledge further with the establishment of an $8 million performance lab that monitors in real time what happens in the brains of musicians and audiences as they interact with each other.

“Until now, my research has focused on individuals. Yet one of the most important things about music is that it’s a social activity. We do it at parties, weddings, funerals, anywhere people come together to feel a common goal,” says the professor of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour.

They are also more likely to help each other, Trainor’s research has shown. “We studied 14-month-olds and found that those who participated in simultaneous movement to music with an experimenter were twice as likely to help that experimenter when she ‘accidentally’ dropped a crayon compared to infants who experienced out-of-synch movement with the experimenter. It made me realize that we need to study groups of people.”

The McMaster LIVE (Large Interactive Virtual Environment) Lab was funded with grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. With its grand opening in the fall of 2013, the LIVELab looks like an ordinary 100-seat concert hall, with many of its seats wired to measure audience members’ physiological responses – everything from brain activity and heart rate to breathing and perspiration.

Infrared motion sensors record head movements. “We want to know if one person starts moving his head, do others start doing it as well?” says Trainor. “Do they feel affiliation with other members of the audience?”

Audience members are not the only ones who are monitored. EEG recordings reveal how musicians interact when engaged in the complex task of making music together.

“It’s not an easy thing at all. There’s an ongoing negotiation between musicians. Playing together requires the brain to make models to predict what other musicians are going to do, because if you wait to hear what they do it’s too late to play in synch with them.”

The LIVE Lab includes a video wall to measure the cognitive and emotional impacts of media presentations and virtual acoustics capable of mimicking any space, from the very small to Carnegie Hall, to see how individuals are affected by different auditory environments.

The research applications are limitless, says Trainor, from improved hearing aids to new therapies for autism. “Everyone thinks music is fun but that it doesn’t really doing anything important. But studying how the brain processes music can tell us a lot about how the motor system and the auditory system interact in general.”

Trainor’s group has shown, for instance, that if they present individuals with a rhythmic pattern of evenly spaced beats, and then slow down the tempo, the brain adjusts. “Recording EEG and MEG, we were able to analyze the oscillatory activity in the brain. We found that beta oscillations decreased after every beat and increased prior to the next. The brain was predicting the next beat.”

Even more interesting, she notes, is where in the brain that mental activity is occurring. “We saw activity in auditory areas, which was not surprising, but we also found it occurring in motor areas, which tells us that the two areas are in synch. They’re talking to each other.”

Trainor predicts that the knowledge gained from experiments in the LIVE Lab will be transformative. “There are other virtual labs out there but they’re not equipped to study both musician variables and audience variables. This facility will provide us with rich sets of data not available anywhere else in the world.”