Carnegie Mellon University

School of Music

Where artistry and innovation share center stage


July 25, 2011



We all possess the ability to recognize, understand and make music. It’s one of the things that defines us as humans.

But how does music elicit an emotional response?

Carnegie Mellon University’s Richard Randall may soon learn the answer.

“Making and understanding music engages high-level mental processes, and if our goal is to better understand the human brain, then it’s in our best interests to try and understand how it works in as many different contexts as possible,” Randall said.

For example, what can neural plasticity, as it relates to music, tell us about neural plasticity in general?

“We don’t know where the next big breakthrough in artificial intelligence or machine learning might come from. It very well might come from something we learn about the role music plays in our cognitive development,” Randall said.

Thanks to CMU’s new Rothberg Research Award in Human Brain Imaging, scientists like Randall have more opportunities to make these important neural discoveries.

The Rothberg Awards were established so that CMU faculty, post-docs and students could creatively push research boundaries to further investigate how the brain thinks, learns and ages.

The awards support CMU’s leadership in brain science and complement the university’s recently launched Brain, Mind and Learning research initiative.

In Randall’s case, the Rothberg Award will allow him to gain valuable experience using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) in a musical context.

His proposed study will investigate how music elicits an emotional response.

“Specifically, this study will use fMRI to examine whether or not structural musical features — mode, tempo and loudness, for example — can be correlated with the elicitation of specific kinds of emotions,” he explained.

Randall says projects like his are often overlooked by mainstream funding sources because they lie outside traditional research categories.

“The Rothberg Award is special because it’s open to people who would like to learn about and use fMRI technology. Applicants need not be specialists in brain imaging,” Randall explained.

His love of music drives him to pursue this kind of research.

First a listener, then performer, scholar and finally teacher, Randall’s perception of music has evolved over the years.

“At each step, the meaning and significance of music changed, even though the notes themselves stayed the same,” Randall said. “Music has incredible power to move us emotionally, create social bonds, tell our stories, and inspire us to act.”

Randall is currently working on a neuro-imaging study that investigates how our perception of melodies changes over time.

For example, if we hear something in a melody that is surprising, does the brain respond the same way the tenth time we hear it as it did the first time? It’s a simple, but important question.

“Neuro-imaging in music cognition is relatively new and there are few questions that aren’t worth asking,” said Randall.

“That is what makes this area of research so exciting. The smallest discovery could open very big doors.”

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