Music and the Mind

When conductor Keith Lockhart strode to the podium for a spring performance in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s family concert series, he was wired. Wired for sound, that is.


As part of a McGill study to measure the effects of music on the human brain, researchers from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) in the Schulich School of Music fitted Lockhart with a skin-tight vest; sensors built into the garment monitored his every heartbeat and muscle twitch. Five members of the orchestra were similarly decked out, while 15 volunteers from the audience—adults and children—wore simple sensors. Thirty-five additional audience members registered their ongoing emotional experience by moving a slider up and down during the performance.

The high-tech gear recorded a variety of physical responses that researchers hope will provide a window on what happens inside the heads (and bodies) of musicians and audience members during a concert.

“Your pulse, the amount you sweat, these things have been shown to be correlated with different emotional states,” explains Daniel Levitin, Bell Chair in the Psychology of Electronic Communication and author of the bestselling book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

The study should reveal a conductor’s success at transmitting emotions to musicians and, through them, to the audience. A second part of the study monitored a test group at McGill’s Tanna Schulich Hall as they watched a recording of the same concert; researchers plan to rate similarities and differences in emotional responses among listeners of live versus recorded concerts.

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Fonds de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies, Valorisation-Recherche Québec and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.