S.M.A.R.T. stands for Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology. We focus on music-cognition-related research, a branch of cognitive neurosciences involving things like memory, learning and decision-making. We apply those to music and what’s called audition – how we process and hear music and sound.
My job entails everything from paperwork to setting up electroencephalograms (EEGs) and measuring electrophysiology (sweat responses to different musical stimuli).
I went to McMaster University after high school. I applied in life sciences in my initial general year, and in my second year specialized in music cognition. We always listened to music in my family I took piano lessons and at age 10 started drum lessons. I always jammed with my father, who plays electric guitar.
I knew I wanted to do something related to music, so I thought about music philosophy, but it’s not a field you can actually study. A friend told me about the music cognition program, and it was the perfect fit. It’s focus is how we understand music, how we create it and how it’s become an incredible, ubiquitous part of our world.
I really liked math and science in high school, so I wanted to continue that in university. My bachelor of science degree allowed me to merge art into the scientific world and use it as a tool to discover more about how our brains work.
There are three branches from which you can take music cognition at McMaster: science, an arts degree through social science and music. Many of my friends were music majors, and I took harmony and was in a percussion ensemble. Science and arts sometimes have a hard time mixing, but in this field I’ve found a nice way of blending them together.
At McMaster, I worked in two different research labs. One was studying music, acoustics, perception and learning and the other was looking at human neuroplasticity. I learned basic scientific research methods, how to design experiments, how to present research and summarize it. I also did EEG work to understand tinnitus. I learned a lot of hands-on technical skills. We did a lot of reading, and the undergrad program really drilled into us the importance of extracting info from journal articles.
My friends from the music side had a difficult time understanding neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. At Ryerson, it’s nice to see how musical the individuals in the lab are. There are jazz and rock musicians. One student records and produces music for commercials.
We’re working on more than 10 research projects. I enjoy seeing ideas sparked in a conversation become hypotheses and then stimuli and a pilot study. Finally, we get the data. For example, we’re working on a project for older adults to see if singing in a choir can help their cognitive abilities over time.
There aren’t many jobs in this field, and only a few labs in the city work on music cognition. Lab manager positions are not guaranteed. Getting hired in this field can be a challenge for graduating students.
Prior to going into the program, I thought labs would be more like chemistry or biology labs, like we would be looking at brains in jars. But it’s much more human in terms of our everyday interactions.
Having a musical background helps but is not crucial. It can also help in hypothesizing and gives me a vocabulary and a level of experience. Right now we’re testing orchestral drummers, so playing marimba and timpani allows me to understand where they’re coming from.
I do a lot of technical set-up of research equipment and assist people running experiments, but being musical in my spare time is an added dimension and helps me fit in with the researchers.