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Academy Professor studies music, the brain and movement

25 Apr 2017

When a musician listens to music, different areas of the brain are activated than in non-musicians. This is because, in musicians, there is a stronger connection between the motor and auditory cortices.

This result was obtained during the Musical Cognition Dynamics project at the University of Jyväskylä, by monitoring 18 musicians and non-musicians listening to music, and examining the effect on their brains by using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

“Music is a multimodal sensory phenomenon strongly associated with our physical selves. Our latest research is strongly focused on body movements,” says Academy Professor Petri Toiviainen.

“We’re investigating which motor areas are involved in processing music and are analysing the relationship between aural and bodily reactions. We’re using the so-called naturalistic paradigm, that is, we build the most natural experimental setting possible, use real pieces of music and analyse their musical characteristics in advance.”

Analysis methods a major result

The project’s key results include the analysis methods developed by the multidisciplinary research team. Thousands of people are already using their computer analysis application, which is freely downloadable. The team has developed its own methods of analysing brain and movement data. They are also using a supercomputer to compute the data, and have bought motion capture laboratory equipment. In addition, they have access to the equipment of the Agora Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research.

The research has also explored connectivity and how music activates the limbic brain areas. The same pleasure centres are activated by drugs, for example.

“In musicians, these pleasure centres are more strongly linked to the motor areas and stimulate the production of music. This reinforces the pleasure created by music,” Toiviainen says.

“All of the musicians studied are instrumentalists and structure their music through actions. The instrument also has an effect. For example, comparisons between violinists and pianists have revealed that, due to their practising techniques, pianists have more symmetrical brain responses than violinists.”

No continuous group was monitored for the research, but subjects were recruited separately for each part of the study. The aim is to gather data that reveals the differences between people’s backgrounds, such as their musical training and personality. Brain research data is being collected in cooperation with Aarhus University and the data is being analysed in Jyväskylä.

The University of Jyväskylä’s wide range of equipment is being used by the research team led by Academy Professor Toiviainen.

The funding also provides an opportunity for internationalisation

Toiviainen explains that the research is slow and expensive to perform. The devices are expensive and several researchers are needed on site. The Academy Professorship, which frees Toiviainen from administrative duties and allows him to focus on research, will last from 2014 to 2018. In addition to him, six people, five of whom already have doctoral degrees, are working on the project.

The project has so far focused on Western music and subjects, but the research cooperation is expanding to the Dalian University of Technology in China.

“The idea is to expand brain research into the multicultural sphere. We’ll select both European and Chinese listeners as subjects, and both will listen to music from both their own and each other’s cultures. This will give us a better understanding of which areas are activated when the brain processes music and teach us more about multiculturalism,” Toiviainen says.

The research team, too, is quite international, with researchers from six countries. They came to Jyväskylä to study on international master’s programmes in the Department of Music and continued with doctoral studies and research.

However, Toiviainen is concerned about the future of doctoral studies and international cooperation, as both master’s programmes in music have been discontinued, running until the end of 2018 during the transition period. At the same time, the Department of Music will become part of the Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies.

“Our research is world-class and widely recognised. That’s what has brought international researchers to Jyväskylä, first for the master’s programme and then, in many cases, a PhD,” Toiviainen says.

Potential applications in music and movement therapy

The team’s recent research focus has been movement research: how brain synchronisation occurs when listening to music and how movement reflects the personality of the listener.

“Most people move along with music. Music has a multi-level, hierarchical rhythmical structure and we break it down into physical movements as we listen,” Toiviainen explains.

“The brain’s motor areas are involved in parsing the music pulse. So, this isn’t just about the auditory cortex. Music and dance are closely connected in many cultures and one never comes without the other.”

“We have a motion capture laboratory, where we study how music and movement synchronise. Our findings may contribute to music therapy for older people, or our movement therapy results could help patients with Parkinson’s disease,” he says.

The time remaining for the project will be used to explore group dynamics.

“Music is a social phenomenon; important research topics include personality types, empathy and movement. We’ve tested more than a hundred people dancing in small groups. We monitor multi-dimensional bodily movements and the emergence of interaction, empathy and synchrony. We’re now analysing the results and developing algorithms,” Toiviainen says.

Original text in Finnish and photos by Marja Keränen

Last modified 25 Apr 2017
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