Get up, stand up: ‘Epic project’ explores how music builds support for social justice

Image of Graduate students Shreshth Saxena, Maya Flannery and Joshua Schlichting sitting on a couch smiling for a photo with professor Lauren Fink

From left: Graduate students Shreshth Saxena, Maya Flannery and Joshua Schlichting are working with assistant professor Lauren Fink to turn a concert and documentary into BEAT Lab's most ambitious research project yet.

Can music move us to make a difference?

It’s a question Lauren Fink and her student team are ready to answer.

They have the musicians, venue and technology lined up. All they need now is an audience.

“It’s going to be an epic project,” promises Fink, an assistant professor in the department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour.

On April 2 and 4, LIVELab is hosting The Innocents, a live music performance that advocates for social justice.

Composed and performed by world-renowned percussionists Allen Otte and John Lane, The Innocents explores wrongful imprisonment and exoneration.

Fink and her students will study audiences in multiple ways during the hour-long live performance by Otte and Lane, and a screening of an award-winning feature-length documentary about their U.S. tour.

The documentary features Anna Vasquez, who was wrongly convicted in a trial corrupted by homophobia, and spent 13 years in prison before being exonerated.

Audience members who choose to participate in the research will have their eye movements and heart rates tracked and complete a survey.

All that data will help Fink and her team pinpoint what moves people during a concert: When does audience attention wax and wane? How do physiological changes relate to self-reported emotions and opinions?

“Advocacy through music has the potential to shape public opinions,” says Fink.

“Yet advocacy and the altruism it promotes are understudied areas in social psychology, music cognition and communication studies.

“Our hope is that our findings can be applied in creative and cultural industries and used to design musical experiences that maximize audience engagement.”

It’s an ambitious project and one that ties together Fink’s lifelong passion for music, neuroscience and social justice.

She studied music and performed as an orchestral percussionist at the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music.

Otte was one of Fink’s professors and mentors. “Working with Allen has profoundly shaped my thinking for the better part of a decade now,” Fink says.

After completing a masters at the Centre for Music & Science at Cambridge University, Fink earned a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis, followed by postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics.

That’s where she organized two conferences and a special issue in a research journal devoted to eye-tracking studies of music.

Tickets are on sale for The Innocents at the LIVELab April 2nd and 4th.

Maybe you can take the scientist out of the orchestra, but you can’t take the orchestra out of the scientist. Fink takes a collaborative approach to her latest and largest-ever research study, with every student in her lab playing a key part in the project.

“Like an orchestra, we’re entirely dependent on each other. The collective success of our study rests on our individual contributions.”

PhD student Shreshth Saxena will investigate the audience’s gaze behaviour using eye-tracking glasses. He’s also developed deep learning-based webcam eye-tracking methods that’ll measure the gaze of participants watching an online livestream of the performance and documentary.

Doctoral student Maya Flannery will use open-source watches and web cameras to track the audience’s heart rates. Analyzing cardiac activity will allow the team to determine whether certain elements of the performance or documentary lead to more variable responses and whether that variability fluctuates the same way across audience members.

Graduate student Joshua Schlichting will use surveys to go beyond physiological measures and investigate the social psychology of both the concert and documentary.

Responses will yield insights into audience members’ subjective experiences and record their follow-up engagement around the issue of wrongful incarceration.

Combining the research by Saxena, Flannery and Schlichting will take the project to a whole other level, Fink says.

“Exploring the mapping between physiological responses, self-reported experience and observable behavior will allow our team to integrate all of their individual interests and specialties to answer the larger question about how art and music move audiences.”

Getting students to see themselves as scientists can be a long process, so the project will also deliver another key benefit.

“Involving all my graduate students in a project where we mutually depend on one another, where we all see, respect and support each other as scientists with important roles to fill, will help them build their identities as valuable, contributing members of both the scientific community and society more broadly.”

Tickets are on sale for The Innocents at the LIVELab April 2nd and 4th.

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