When we become emotionally, cognitively, or physically engaged, our pores open and our skin conductance increases. Jason Silveira, an assistant professor in the School of Arts and Communication, is leveraging this understanding to study how our bodies and brains react to music. His project is just one technology under development in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s CreateIT Collaboratory.

Silveira’s lab assistants are seeking to quantify humans’ musical perception by measuring how much electricity skin conducts while listening to certain pieces of music. He envisions an entire audience outfitted with devices that measure skin conductance, enabling scientists to understand the collective response to a concert.

“One question I’m exploring is whether there’s a point when everybody is responding similarly to the music. Or is it a more individual experience?” said Silveira.

Launched with seed funding from the Tektronix Foundation, the Collaboratory matches “pie-in-the-sky” ideas from industry with eager students willing to make them a reality. Projects range from the technical to the whimsical, and many — like Silveira’s — combine arts and engineering, and engage interdisciplinary approaches to invention.

So far, music perception research has relied on either self-reported data or single devices that measure arousal on an individual basis. Silveira’s partnership with Collaboratory students and Donald Heer, faculty research assistant in the College of Engineering, has given him the tools to explore broader-scale research on music perception.

“In partnering with the Collaboratory, I hope to investigate this phenomenon in a real-world setting,” he said. “I’m looking to measure audience reaction as well as how the performers react to their own performance. Working with Don’s group has brought a lot of technical know-how to the research. Also, it’s great to get our students and faculty connected with other departments and disciplines. There are so many avenues for future research with this partnership, from music education, to music therapy, to fields outside of music.”

The Collaboratory complements another cross-disciplinary initiative called Create@Oregon State, a partnership between the colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts that celebrates the potential for innovation in art and technology. The program recognizes the common human impulse to make things — from circuit boards to sculptures.

“Our goal is to foster creative, productive partnerships between the arts and engineering at OSU,” said Charles Robinson, the Create@Oregon State program coordinator. “Our work includes evolving curriculum, active collaboration between faculty and students, a bold vision for campus growth, and dynamic outreach and engagement.”

Create@Oregon State has hosted a number of lectures featuring artists who take inspiration from science, engineering, and technology. For example, Perry R. Cook, the pioneering figure at the heart of the evolution of computer-mediated music, delivered a workshop and lecture on his co-creation of the world’s first laptop orchestra. Instead of oboes, violins, and flutes, players in Perry’s orchestra network laptop computers and custom-designed speakers to fill a concert hall with vivid sound.
With interdisciplinary initiatives such as the Collaboratory and Create@Oregon State, College of Engineering students have opportunities to gain skills that encourage new ways of assimilating and applying knowledge.

“On a fundamental level, engineering — like art or any other discipline — is creative and integrative,” said Robinson. “In practical terms, there’s no engineering project that’s only solved with a purely engineering solution. You apply engineering methodology, tools, and rigor, but that process is informed by creative interpretation and thinking, as well as a whole host of other skills across the humanities and other technical fields. The degree to which engineers can think more like artists and vice versa enriches the experience of each discipline, and ultimately results in greater innovation and more successful projects.”

— Abby P. Metzger