• Nicole Avakyan

Brain Songs, a unique Jazz concert where we learned about Music Cognition

Updated: Jul 13, 2019


by Lily Jiménez-Dabdoub


The latest Convergence Art-Sci Sci-Art conference, Brain Songs, presented on June 20th 2019, took the form of a unique concert that also taught the audience many things about Music Cognition. What was most exciting about this concert/conference? It took place at the Jeanne Timmins Amphitheatre of the famous Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital: “The Neuro”. The concert marked the first time that this world-renowned institution, where top-notch music cognition research is produced, hosted actual musicians who made music at a neuroscience conference for the general public.


Together, Dr. Nicolas Farrugia (Associate Professor at IMT Atlantique, France) and Christophe Rocher (Ensemble Nautilis) have developed a personal research project to explore the subjectivity and neural states of musical improvisation. The concert/conference the audience enjoyed at the Neuro represents how this project comes to life.


I had the pleasure of introducing the project, Dr. Nicolas Farrugia and the musicians to the audience. Christophe Rocher (Brest, France) played the clarinet, Thierry Amar – the bass and Craig Pedersen – the trumpet (both from Montreal, Canada). Christophe Rocher was hooked up to a portable electroencephalogram (EEG) recording machine with five recording channels, and the audience was able to watch the live recordings from his EEG while he was performing/improvising with the other two musicians.


EEG stands for Electroencephalogram and is a non-invasive method to record electrical activity of the brain, from the cortex. Typically, EEGs have as many as 36 channels for recording activity. EEG uses electrodes placed along the scalp to record the voltage/ electrical activity of the brain. Normally, there are caps that have the electrodes on them, so they are easy to colocate, but there are also smaller EEGs, portable (like the one Dr. Farrugia used during this performance) using only 5 channels. It is an elastic band with the electrodes placed on it.



From left to right: Dr. Nicolas Farrugia, Christophe Rocher, Thierry Amar and Craig Pedersen. Rocher wears a portable EEG recording device which provides the live signals seen on the screen behind the musicians. Photo: Nate Klett.

The improvisation performance went on smoothly, Christophe Rocher took the lead and provided a very engaging show, playing a few different kinds of clarinets. He mostly played with his eyes closed to avoid eye activity showing up on the EEG recording. The audience was excited, following both the interesting musical improvisation and the spikes and fast changes of the EEG signal. This was the first time these three musicians had played together, and they managed to bring very interesting experimental and dynamic melodies to the audience.


After the performance, Dr. Farrugia started the conference by acknowledging the work done here in Montreal, leading the world to a new understanding of neuroscience and music cognition. He recognized his former advisor Dr. Simone Dalla Bella, as well as Dr. Robert Zatorre, Dr. Daniel Levitin and Dr. Oliver Sacks. To introduce the topic of music cognition, he remarked that even early on was no doubt about how music engages activation from the whole brain.


Then, Dr. Farrugia explained how numerous studies are providing evidence of the effects of musical training on the brain. According to Grossard and colleagues (2014), musical entrainment leads to development of grey matter in the left hippocampus, insula and left posterior cingulate. All these brain regions are not only engaged in musical cognition, but also deeply connected to emotional processing.


Brain Songs has two main objectives: to get to know the basis of music improvisation by exploring the concept of flow state (1975, Csikszentmihalyi) and the possible plasticity and training effects improvisation has on the brain. Thus, Dr. Farrugia’s scientific basis for this project are research on the effects of improvisation and memory retrieval.



According to Beaty and colleagues (2015), musicians who improvise have a deactivation of networks engaged in planning, so Dr. Farrugia agrees that since musicians are not engaging with long term memory, but rather a creative process of the present situation, this finding makes sense. But what are Dr. Farrugia’s critiques of this research? To him, as a musician but also a scientist, it is hard to find a balance between the validity and control of variables. Moreover, to really study improvisation he believes it is important to emphasize ecological validity, or as Dr. Farrugia puts it: study “musicians in the wild”. Thus, Brain Songs was born as a way to have Christophe Rocher improvising in front of audiences and also engage with his personal analysis of his own flow state.


Dr. Farrugia reported to us that from 2019 to 2021, Brain Songs will aim to have more concerts/conferences to better understand the neuronal functioning of Christophe's brain activity when improvising. His EEG data will continue to be collected live while he performs and improvises. Then, analysis of these data will evaluate the subjective states of improvisation such as concentration, stress, creativity and flow.


What are the challenges of this innovative way of doing live research? Dr. Farrugia recognizes there are plenty, among them: How can we evaluate spontaneous brain processes? Can we really evaluate flow state and then relate it to the actual music creation/performance? How to evaluate brain states that are so complex and involved with subjective time perception?


The approach was developed in collaboration with Rocher which makes this project unique, since it is taking a single case study approach. Rocher’s scientific background as well helps him have a clear introspective view on his own mental processes of improvisation. He is also able to read his own EEG recordings and debate the findings with Dr. Farrugia.


Some interesting details shared about the methodology on Brain Songs is that after each performance, Rocher listens to the performance and takes notes on his perception about his flow state, as a continuous rating, and also, his subjective time perception. So far, they have done 6 rehearsal sessions where they discussed details on the design of the project, and this conference was their third live performance (the two first ones took place in Brest, France).



So what is next?

For Dr. Farrugia and Rocher the next steps are to approach the complexity of self-evaluation of flow state and how to find its relation to the EEG recording. Another big challenge is to question if there is a way to predict ratings using brain oscillations. And finally, to identify and distinguish states of improvisation using the EEG and these evaluation ratings is another big goal.


It is true, this project presents a lot of challenges that are pointing into the direction of complexity. Thus, creating a big opportunity for newer platforms for musicians and neuroscientists to question and perform art-science in dynamic ways of trans- and cross-disciplinarity is important to push the existing boundaries.



A bit more about Dr. Farrugia

Since 2016, he is an associate professor at IMT Atlantique, where he is engaged into a transdisciplinary team effort of combining methods from Neuroscience, Deep Learning and Graph signal processing. Thus, Dr. Farrugia’s research is quite transdisciplinary, crossing bridges between artificial intelligence and cognitive neurosciences. After obtaining a PhD in electrical engineering, he moved to the field of cognitive neurosciences as a postdoctoral researcher, focusing on the Neuroscience of Music. He studied the effect of rhythm in the rehabilitation of Parkinson’s Disease, as well as time perception, musical performance in drumming and involuntary musical imagery, also known as Brain Worms! Yes, those tunes that get stuck in your mind… scientists like Dr. Farrugia have provided the basis for understanding their neurological trails.



What is Ensemble Nautilis?

Ensemble Nautilis is lead by Christophe Rocher and he has engaged this collaborative group of international musicians in distinct projects. One of them, of course, the Brain Songs project with Dr. Farrugia.


Rocher’s engagement to create international collaboration has made him gain the support of the permanent cooperation commission France-Québec, in partnership with the Festival Suoni Per El Popolo in Montréal and Plages Magnétiques.



Proofreading by Oscar Bedford


Edited by Nicole Avakyan

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