Music is present everywhere and its power should not be underestimated.

Have you ever walked out of the store with a completely different purchase than you were planning to buy? Maybe you were manoeuvred by music without you knowing it, such is its power to affect people’s behaviour.

If you want to know how we perceive music and react to it and how musical training affects our observations and reactions, it is good to have a chat with Petri Toiviainen.

To demonstrate his research methods, Toiviainen divides them into three levels: cognitive-affective, neural and bodily.

 “In practice, the cognitive-affective level is studied with listening tests. The test persons assess music played to them, for example, how happy, sad or perhaps frightening they find it,” Toiviainen explains.

Brain scanning, more specifically functional magnetic resonance imaging, is used at the neural level. It helps to see how the brain reacts to certain stimuli. The scanning technique helps researchers to access those areas located in the middle part of the brain that are responsible for emotional processing. And you cannot really talk about music without talking about emotions.

“These two levels, cognitive-affective and neural, often go hand in hand in research. The purpose is to connect the subjective experience of listening tests with the neural level activity and clarify if it is possible to find certain brain responses to, let’s say, happy or sad music,” he says.

To study the third level of bodily actions we can, for example, monitor people when they are dancing to music: how they react to music and interact with each other through movements. Motion capture technology is used for this purpose. With the help of cameras and infrared light, movements can be modelled three-dimensionally and it is also possible to create animations of moving people.

“The way you dance and communicate with your dancing partner through movements reveals, for example, if you are an emphatic person or not,” says Toiviainen.

Multidisciplinary innovations

Music science is multidisciplinary, combining humanities, data processing and brain imaging.

“For instance, I am a physicist whose doctorate is in music science,” says Toiviainen, laughing.

Toiviainen and his colleagues put a lot of effort on computational music analysis, in which JYU’s researchers are among the world leaders. They develop methods to enable computer-based analysis of various characteristics of music recordings, such as rhythm and timbre.

“These characteristics can be used to predict how the music will be perceived and what kind of brain responses it will create. A certain rhythm or timbre is usually related to an active emotional state. Computational music analysis is precise, repeatable and efficient: we are able to analyse a million songs with the press of a button,” says Toiviainen.

Computational music analysis has helped to create many important innovations: You can use real music in the study of brain responses whereas musical characteristics can be analysed from recordings. This helps to find the brain areas that process music:

 “In earlier studies, artificial music such as different rhythms have been used instead of real music. Our presupposition was that due to various musical characteristics the brain responses when listening to real music are more than a sum of their parts.”

Brain responses are also interesting because they reveal if you are a musician, Toiviainen explains:

“We taught the computer to classify people as musicians and non-musicians based on their brain responses to rhythm, timbre and tonality. We also succeeded to find the parts of the brain in which musicians and non-musicians have the greatest differences. This illustrates the parts of the brain most affected from musical training.”

Studies have also revealed other interesting aspects of the brain. Musicians usually have a larger corpus callosum than non-musicians. This is believed to result from hand movement coordination.

“When playing, the transfer of communication between the halves of the brain must be efficient,” says Toiviainen.” The corpus callosum transfers the information, and increased activity makes it larger. Just like any muscle, it grows when it is trained.”

Music research provides applications in commerce and health

Let’s return to the shop. The ability to influence customers with music has been demonstrated in research.

“A classic study was made in a shop that sold German and French wines. On consecutive days, they played German and French music. German music made people buy German wines and French the French ones,” says Toiviainen.

Lunch restaurants may find it interesting that their choice of music could double their sales. If they want people to eat fast and leave in order to make room for new customers, they should play music with a fast tempo.

In addition to commercial applications, you can utilise the results of music research in music therapy. Especially the bodily interaction of the client and the music therapist is crucial and partly indicates how the therapy is proceeding.

”In music therapy,” Toiviainen says, “interaction takes place at many levels: verbally, playing together and through movements. Once we better learn how the brain processes music, we can also develop more efficient music therapy methods for various target groups.”

Despite all the innovations and new research results, the brain is still as uncharted as the bottom of the ocean. We do not know anywhere near of all its mechanisms, Toiviainen says: “There is plenty left for researchers to study and discover in the future.”