in Articles

Combining disciplines

The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research lives up to its name. The extent of interdisciplinary music research is impressive by international standards. Combining so many different disciplines' methodologies has not been simple but it has worked.

BY Jonathan Mander

The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research lives up to its name. The extent of interdisciplinary music research is impressive by international standards. Combining so many different disciplines’ methodologies has not been simple but it has worked.

The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research was founded in 2008, when the Academy of Finland granted it funding for six years until 2013. The Academy picked 18 Centres of Excellence based on applications by research groups. It is the first time a music research group has been picked. Additional funding comes from the universities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä. The Academy’s funding for the first three-year period is over a million euros.

The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research is divided between two cities: the Music Cognition Team in the University of Jyväskylä’s department of music and the Brain and Music Team in the University of Helsinki’s department of psychology. The first is led by Professor Petri Toiviainen, who is the director of the Centre, and the latter by Project Coordinator Mari Tervaniemi.

The main focus is on the ways people listen to, experience and perform music. More specified areas of research are perception and learning, musical emotions and the relation between motion and music. The role music has in our everyday is a relevant perspective too. A lot of the research is conducted by monitoring people and their reactions to music. A lot of the experimental research methods make use of modern technology.

Targeting international excellence

By definition a Centre of Excellence is a research unit made up of one or several high-standard research teams with clear goals and a joint leadership. The aim is that each centre has the potential to reach the international vanguard in its own field during the six year period of funding. In the case of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research that is the case already. The extent of interdisciplinary research work sets the centre apart.

“The extent of interdisciplinary research is something that definitely sets apart in international comparison,” says Professor Petri Toiviainen.

Securing funding for a six year period has allowed for systematic operations, long-term plans and employment of more people.

“As such this has not been a radical change to what we have been doing. Many of the requirements to get the Academy of Finland funding mean that a lot has to be in place already – for instance funding is not given for equipment. We have already been collaborating across disciplines before,” Toiviainen explains.

Collaboration has been intensified, though. Continuous projects are interdisciplinary by nature and bi-annual seminars give a chance to see where various research is heading and to deepen involvement. The funding has also made possible more post-doctoral studies and more doctoral theses are in the pipeline. The Centre of Excellence now employs thirty people.

Born to dance

The hot topics tackled at the Centre of Excellence come from several of the different sciences involved. Important research is being done in the field of emotions – how experiencing music influences them and what happens on a neural level. Many research topics at the centre also involve music’s role in improving wellbeing. This relates to the cognitive and emotional effects of music therapy as well as the way music is used to control and modify emotions.

“We’ve studied how music is used to change people’s moods – how music is used to calm down or cheer up. These are common ways music has always been used and a significant motivation for listening to music. Suvi Saarikallio has focused on pubescents and the way they use music to control their moods,” Toiviainen says.

This also involves the influence of personality or depression on the way the listener reacts to music. Other research focuses on how the brain processes music. Music is played to a test person and their reaction is observed to see what happens and where in the brain.

“It has been another unique combination of disciplines, and we’ve also used actual music, which is not a given in these kinds of tests.”

One of the first pieces of research to emerge from the Centre of Excellence was the multidisciplinary study focusing on how babies react to music. Babies’ reactions to music were studied using 3D motion capture technology and computer analysis of the material.

“When babies hear music their movements are different from when they hear other kinds of sounds. This means that babies are born to dance, it is in their genes,” Toiviainen explains.

Another case also involving several different disciplines studied the effect of personality on the way people dance. The research found that it is possible to analyse a person’s personality based on the way they dance.

Cases such as these have brought international recognition with the baby study, for instance, reported on widely in the academic press but also mainstream media including the BBC. These studies cross the threshold from purely academic to popular.

Research results have brought international recognition to the Finnish centre, but also the simple existence of this truly interdisciplinary Centre of Excellence has drawn attention.

“I feel that in some ways we are showing the way, especially in the extent of interdisciplinary research we are doing,” Toiviainen admits.

Speaking the same language

Such a diverse group of academics has not got together to focus on music research anywhere. The team includes people from the fields of eg. music research, music therapy, psychology, cognitive sciences, physics, biology and others.

“Not only is the range of specialities so broad, but we all actually work together continuously,” Toiviainen points out.

It is what makes the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research unique, but to really get going people used to different methodologies had to find a way of working together.

“For this to work it was key that we started the process on a smaller scale four years before the Centre of Excellence launched. It gave us time to develop the ways of working together,” Toiviainen says.

“The biggest challenges were in communication. We had to learn to understand each other and that didn’t come for free. The terminology differs between the different disciplines and we’ve had to learn each other’s jargon. Even the way things are expressed varies, all the way to how things are written.”

To be continued

The current funding from the Academy of Finland ends in 2013. What then? Is the goal of all research there?

“We can’t take it as a starting point that there is a six year slot when to do our research and complete it. In many cases with, for instance, monitoring children’s development, the timeframe is much longer,” Toiviainen says.

The music research groups rely on outside funding, and at least founding the Centre of Excellence has calmed the continuous application process, where funding is often secured only for two or three years at a time.

“Optimistically we approach the project with the belief that we will find further funding after this period runs out. One option is to get further funding from the Academy of Finland in the form of another period as a Centre of Excellence, but competition is tough,” Toiviainen adds.

Toiviainen is confident that interdisciplinary music research will continue to bear fruit even after 2013.



From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 1/2011

Please note that the texts are protected by the copyright laws. They are free for background use, but when referring to these texts or articles, please mention the author and FMQ magazine.