McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is finally going to answer some hard-hitting questions like: What do brainwaves look like when they're waiting for a fat bass drop? Or, how would your killer Chromeo cover band sound if they played at Carnegie Hall?
The Large Interactive Virtual Environment (LIVE) Lab is a one of a kind studio that makes use of active acoustic control, EEG (electroencephalogram) caps, heart rate monitors, motion sensors, and various other tools in order to measure both the audience and the performers' reactions to music. Since the applications of such an impressive array of equipment aren't necessarily obvious by mere mention alone, Dr. Laurel Trainor, the Director of McMaster's Institute for Music and the Mind, explained things.
LIVELab is able to incorporate the audience into the performance, and not in a bullshit "you, our dearest fans, are the fifth member of the band" way. They can actually make you part of the show by measuring your brainwaves in real time and then converting them into sound. Brainwaves occur as oscillations, similarly to how sound waves are visualized — making their transition to audio entirely possible. Once transformed into sound, brainwaves can then be played as backing music for the performers to improvise over, or directly influence the flow of the show. Then, while your brain rocks a synthesizer, you can even get your heart working a drum-machine, while your skin tries to figure out why your cracked version of Ableton keeps crashing, according to Dr. Trainor (though definitely not in her words).
"In addition to brainwaves, we can also measure heart rate and breathing rate, and what we call galvanic skin responses," Dr. Trainor tells THUMP. "When someone gets more emotionally involved, they sweat a little bit more, and we can measure that on their finger. So, it's basically just how much resistance there is if you pass a tiny electric current, from one point to another point on the finger, which tells us how emotionally involved they are."
After your internal organs have laid down some personal beats, body language also plays a role: giving detailed information to LIVELab's 28 infra-red cameras. The cameras observe all three-dimensional movements made by the audience and performers, which is used to answer questions about physical, unspoken musical cues.
"We can track these very complex dynamics of movement through all the people in the space," Dr. Trainor explains. "We can figure out how important that is, how it contributes to people's enjoyment of a performance, how the musicians use it, how people react to the way that performers move. The whole visual thing is something we think is very important. In concerts, it's not just the sounds you hear, but it's what you're seeing and how the two fit together."
The utility of movement tracking goes even further with programs like Dance for Parkinson's, where LIVELab's equipment is used to aid people suffering from the disease. According to Dr. Trainor, music isn't just rhythms and auditory signals, but something that's read by the motor part of the brain too. A lot of movements, such as walking, are actually rhythmical, meaning that our ability to process rhythms may have started with our movement systems.
"What we're finding is that when we play an auditory rhythm… it's like a different way of helping the motor system get started. Those auditory cues actually help people with Parkinson's to make movements. With some patients it's quite pronounced, you just put on some music with a strong beat and their walking just instantly changes, it becomes much more fluid," says Dr. Trainor.
If a strong beat immediately brought techno to mind, then join the club. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that the pounding four by four genre could prove effective in treatment. "I don't know of any studies that have specifically used techno or house music with Parkinson's, but I expect that the strong regular beat of much of this music would give a strong cue to help movement," Dr. Trainor tells THUMP.
Medical reasons like Dance for Parkinson's are a noble aspect of LIVELab's research, but just a small section of the studio's vision. "What the lab is about is trying to understand human interaction," says Dr. Trainor. "For a large part, we use music as a model for that, because music is very demanding in terms of how we interact with other people. If you're talking to someone, you have to listen and think about what you're going to say in response at the same time, so even that's quite complicated. In music, however, if you're playing with another musician you have to be right there with them at the right time. We really want to understand these processes."
Despite the fact that the lab has only been in operation since fall 2014, it has already yielded some interesting results. "One of the things we've been shown in there is that if you're playing with someone who's really in sync with your timing, you're actually better at detecting other aspects, like the wrong pitch," Dr. Trainor explains. "Whereas if you're playing with somebody who isn't that good at following your timing, you're constantly sort of fighting about playing together, then you don't process the rest of the music as well, so you're not hearing these pitch changes in the music… When you're really in the groove, then your whole perception of everything else is enhanced, like you've got more processing power to devote to that."
These preliminary tests only scratch the surface of LIVELab's potential. Given time, perhaps it will yield scientific answers to all those pesky questions, like: Why is it so hard for these bros to jump right at the drop? Does Aphex Twin's "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball" activate a record-breaking number of nodes? Why do I start sweating profusely whenever an Avicii song plays? Only time will tell.
For more information on LIVELab's upcoming shows and research, click here.
Daryl Keating is on Twitter.