Researcher Gets Keck Futures Grant to Help Non-Musical People Enhance Their Groove

Cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janata playing hand drums with other drummers in a samba class

A samba class like this one at UC Davis might be out of reach for people who don’t consider themselves musical or have difficulty keeping a steady beat. Cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janta, second from right, is leading a multidisciplinary team in developing a device to help them get the emotional benefits of group music-making. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

June 15, 2016 — Making music together can deepen social bonds, fostering compassion and empathy among the players. But not everyone is ready, or physically able, to join a drumming circle or even clap along.

A UC Davis cognitive neuroscientist who studies the psychology of music is leading a team in developing an assistive device to help the musically challenged synch their sounds.

Petr Janata, professor in the Department of Psychology and the Center for Mind and Brain, and colleagues have received a $100,000 grant to develop the “groove enhancement machine” and study its effectiveness in improving social interactions.

The grant was among 11 awards announced Wednesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine under its National Academies Keck Futures Initiative to support “bold, new ideas” and interdisciplinary research collaborations. This year’s seed grants, supported by the W.M. Keck Foundation, focus on the intersection of art and science.

“We believe that the portfolio of collaborations selected will impact how we live today, and how we think about tomorrow,” said David A. Edwards, steering committee chair and Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Idea Translation at Harvard University.

Janata and colleagues aim to build a prototype device with a computer program that will blend musical sounds from up to four individuals, synchronizing their timing. 

Collaborators are Jonathan Berger, a music professor at Stanford University; Kiju Lee, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at at Case Western Reserve University; Scott Auerbach, a chemist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and André Thomas, an expert in computer-generated graphics at Texas A&M University.

Their project grew out of a discussion at a Futures conference, Art and Science, Engineering, and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation and Realization, held in Irvine last November. "The workshop was unlike any other I had ever experienced," Janata said. "It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to brainstorm creatively within a very well-organized, aesthetically minded, and demanding setting created by the foremost intellectual institutions in the country."

Kathleen Holder, content strategist for the Division of Social Sciences in UC Davis' College of Letters and Science