Professor’s symphony study is music to the ears

If a conductor’s heart is pounding, can the audience feel it? Teresa Nakra, assistant professor of music at the College, looks at how music affects our emotional states – and how those feelings might transfer from the conductor of a symphony orchestra to those watching in the audience.

Using sensors that measure outward emotional indicators like muscle tension, heart rate and galvanic skin response, Nakra measures how musicians, conductors and audience members respond to the musical experience.

In March, Nakra conducted a pilot study with the College’s Symphony Orchestra, wiring up assistant music professor and conductor Philip Tate and five student musicians as they played. Data from this pilot study served as a basis for the “crazy, huge” study she and researchers from McGill University conducted Saturday with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In the experiment, conductor Keith Lockhart (of the Boston Pops) wore a “conductor’s jacket” that Nakra designed, which held 10 different types of sensors. Five musicians – a bassoon player, bassist, violinist, trumpet player and percussionist – were also hooked up to sensors that fed their data to a backstage computer.

Members of the audience wore sensors that measured galvanic skin response, or had sliding indicators where they self-reported their emotional intensity in response to the music.

Nakra said she would be looking for correlation between the musicians’ and audiences’ reactions. Musicians’ heart rates, for example, might speed up at certain parts of the music, and the audience could have the same reaction.

“We think that maybe as the emotional intensity ratchets up on stage, that we’ll also see the same emotional intensity ratchet up in the audience, but maybe delayed by two seconds, or maybe not ratcheting up quite as high. We don’t know,” Nakra said.

McGill University will conduct a follow-up study by playing a videotape of the performance to an audience, comparing the emotional difference between a live performance and a prerecorded one.

“We think that the audience watching the videotape is not going to have as high of an emotional reaction as the audience that was there live,” Nakra said. “But we don’t know. So we’ll find out.”

To Nakra, the basis of the experiment is both a personal and philosophical question.

“It’s an ancient mystery about why music exists,” Nakra said. “At the college level, we offer courses in music, courses in jazz and in music literature and history of music . but we often don’t take a step back and say, well, why do we have music at all?”

Philosophers and theorists, Nakra said, have suggested that the reason we have music is to offer emotional solace – influencing us in ways that we find pleasing, helpful or therapeutic.

So, if the value of music is in its emotional influence, how exactly does that influence work? To answer this question, Nakra and her fellow researchers borrowed methods from the field of psychology, using sensors that measure degrees of emotional excitation. Then, they built a system that would measure a live performance.

“It’s a very simple concept,” Nakra said. “It’s a very hard thing to actually build that and to make that all happen.”

When Nakra started teaching at the College last fall, she said, the music department, and Tate in particular, supported her research and encouraged her to bring her research to the College.

“(Tate) saw how the (the College) orchestra could be not just an educational experience for the students, and a chance for them to improve their individual instrument skills, but also as a vehicle for research, a test bed,” Nakra said. “So I’m very grateful to Tate for making the orchestra, in a way, a very significant part of this research project.”

Nakra said that she plans to use the College orchestra in her future studies.

As for the question of why we have music at all, Nakra said she isn’t looking for a definitive answer.

“When people think about that question, they come back to the fact that music influences our emotions,” Nakra said. “In a way that is pleasurable, and makes us feel as if we are not alone.”