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Members of the Afiara String Quartet perform while a computer display shows the musicians’ brain activity as they play together. The fundraising concert held on Sept. 5, 2014, showed off the unique capabilities of the newly completed LIVELab (Large Interactive Virtual Environment) at McMaster University in Hamilton. The 100-seat performance hall is designed to enable neuroscientists and other researchers to monitor both performers and audience members in an effort to better understanding the social underpinnings of music. The space will be used for a host of other commercial and research projects, from engineering better hearing aids to studying the effectiveness of dance as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Before the iPod, the Sony Walkman or the home stereo system, music was something people made and experienced with other people.

The universal nature of music-making, which occurs in every culture throughout the ages, suggests evolution may have wired us for it, and that the survival benefit it confers has something to do with the way social groups cohere. But such ideas are speculative and the social dimension of music remains largely unexplored.

Now, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton are aiming to change that with an $8-million facility unique in the world. The novel laboratory they've created will explore the interactive side of music-making with an unprecedented rigour – and it will serve as a tool for a wide range of other research applications from engineering better hearing aids to optimizing presentations to better hold an audience's attention.

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"We expect to find all kinds of things that we just never dreamed of that are going on in these complex interactions," said Laurel Trainor, a neuroscientist and director of the LIVELab (short for Large Interactive Virtual Environment), which officially opens its doors this week.

In essence, LIVElab is a conventional stage and seating area backed by a powerful combination of high-tech gadgetry for recording and cleverly manipulating the way entire groups of people experience music and other forms of performance or presentation. The sound system can be adjusted to simulate a range of acoustic environments from classrooms to cathedrals.

Although music originated as a social activity, scientific research on music and human cognition had tended to focus on individuals. This is largely because the subtle cues and reactions that occur among musicians as they perform – and between the musicians and their audiences – are difficult to capture in a controlled research setting.

Nearly a decade in the making, the facility was funded through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario government and McMaster. Nothing quite so ambitious has been tried before in the field of music studies and the research possibilities have experts taking notice.

"It's really an extraordinary achievement," said Katie Overy, of the Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh. "The attention to detail is evident in every inch of the design."

Dr. Overy, currently a visiting professor at the University of Western Ontario where she is working on research related to musical learning, said she hopes to makes use of the lab for pilot studies.

Just entering the LIVELab is a sensory experience. The space is accessed through a "sound lock" which separates participants from the outside world. The room sits on rubber pads to reduce vibrations and is nested inside a suspended concrete shell, which blocks external noise down to a threshold of 10 decibels. Inside, oversized ductwork keeps air circulating without a sound.

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In other words, it can be very, very quiet.

In its "off" setting, the room is also entirely dead. The walls and surfaces are designed to absorb sound, so that music and voices are swallowed up without any trace of an echo.

"It's our blank slate," Dr. Trainor said in the LIVELab earlier this month.

Then Dan Bosnyak, a research scientist and the lab's technical director, brought the room to life with a few taps on an iPad. Suddenly an array of microphones and speakers located all around us were sensing and re-projecting our voices, adding a pleasant resonance that perfectly reproduced the experience of being in a small theatre or church.

Such tricks have been employed commercially to enhance the acoustics of various spaces. But in the LIVELab, the sound system is coupled with a battery of infrared cameras that can track performers and audience members in real time and digitize their body movements as they react to music and other stimuli. The lab also has the capacity to measure the brain waves of up to 30 participants at once through electroencephalography (EEG).

"The great thing about the LIVELab is that it's very flexible. You can mould the space to fit the project," said Matt Woolhouse, a faculty member at McMaster's School of the Arts who is planning a study of dance therapy for Parkinson's patients.

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By its nature, the set up invites researchers to explore musical questions that have previously been inaccessible to science. For example, they can study how members of a jazz ensemble or a string quartet react to one another while a performance unfolds, or measure how much the physical expressiveness of a musician influences the way her music is perceived by an audience.

All of it involves the broader question of how human brains work together around a shared activity, which puts the lab at the cutting edge of social cognitive science.

"The lab will undoubtedly become a major centre for inquiry in human thinking and behaviour," said Robert Duke, director of the Center for Music Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.

For this reason, the space is also attracting interest from marketing and arts groups interested in what it can tell them about group experiences. Dr. Trainor said the lab would ideally be used for commercial projects about one-third of the time to help support its research activities.

"What this space really comes down to is studying interactions," Dr. Trainor said.

In the process, it may finally reveal what compels humans to gather in groups and make music.

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All together now.

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