To hear, to listen, to empathize: Now that technologies such as neuroimaging have illuminated the depth of music’s impact on the brain, what will be the next breakthrough, from translational to therapeutic? How can new machines and old (traditional musical instruments) work together to enhance music’s role in education and health?
Amy McDermott, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
University of California, Santa Cruz
The “music” imagined new ways people could gain access to music that will improve cooperation, problem solving, and well-being. The group envisioned a simple device that will let people make music together, whether they are musically trained or not.
When humans sing, dance, clap, and make music together, they act in synchrony. Studies have shown that this kind of collective behavior activates neural networks associated with social and emotional processing and cognition, correlated with positive behaviors and group cohesion. In young children, for example, rhythmic playing and singing are associated with a significant increase in spontaneous helping and cooperative problem solving.
The group set out to design a device to tap into the cooperative power of synchronous behavior. The team focused on the value of music to groups like work colleagues, and students. At the same time, it did not lose sight of the benefits of music to individuals.
Keeping a Rhythm: Metronomes Help Us Synchronize
To design a device that helps groups synchronize, the team used the metronome as a starting point. The classic instrument keeps time at a constant rate. Traditional metronomes are frustrating in their consistency: for someone who lacks a strong sense of rhythm, it’s hard to keep in sync. But some metronomes can be programmed to make small adaptations to account for human inconsistency. The small adaptations shepherd the musician who lacks rhythm toward synchrony.
The team focused on adaptive metronomes because they have been used in previous studies of synchrony and cooperatively, both for functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain and in educational therapies. Interacting with the metronome as an adaptive “virtual partner” has been shown to improve attention and motor control and to reduce aggression in children with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example.
The team wants to advance this technology by developing a platform that can adapt to users with different skills. In previous studies, adaptive metronomes have been used with one user at a time. Scaling up to group interaction could provide broader scientific insight on the metronome’s potential beneficial effects.
Implementation: How Would It Work?
There are several imagined prototypes. A sensor, interpretation module, corrective filter, and microphone were the basic elements required. The sensor and microphone would “hear” users and respond, while the interpretation module and filter would analyze and correct variation between participants. The corrective filter would have multiple settings, so that users could decide how much to let the adaptive metronome guide them.
One team member suggested the technology could be a glowing block, which would send and receive musical signals, in addition to adapting to the individual. Participants would each have their own block, allowing them to interact individually, or to engage socially.
Alternatively, the technology could be more like a group game, with a single device serving multiple users at once. In this case the metronome would need to discern between individuals by tracking their movement or sound.
A simple alpha version might be a flat surface, programmed to respond to tapping, like a smart drum. This surface would communicate with assessment tools to “read” the tappers’ rhythms and adapt to minimize variation over time.
A Question of Philosophy
The team defined its goals and zeroed in on the adaptive metronome as an appropriate tool particularly because it can be useful to a large number of people who might benefit from technologically-mediated music-making as an explicit tool for social cohesion, not a replacement for music training. Rudimentary, musical engagement would allow anyone to participate. It would lower barriers to entry, so people without musical training could access the psychological benefits of creative collaboration.
The music group agreed that an adaptive metronome, scalable for group participation, is the next step in music therapy and the study of rhythmic synchronization. The new tool would be useful in a variety of contexts, from the boardroom to community meetings, to the classroom, to the counselor’s office—anywhere increased group cooperation is beneficial.
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