Music affects people deeply. At every stage of life, a large body of research shows, it has a profound impact on behavior and cognition. A new concert hall-cum-laboratory will be the first dedicated facility to examine music’s effect on the brain. The Large Interactive Virtual Environment (LIVE) Lab at McMaster University in Ontario, which opened this fall, will be an experimental space for neuroscientists, physiologists and psychologists to test hypotheses about performance, audience dynamics and musical improvisation.* There are already several projects on the roster for this 96-seat venue.

Every culture in the world has music — one of the reasons that anthropologists consider it to be a defining characteristic of humanity. And making music with others affects how people see one another: research shows that people who experience music together are more likely to rate their collaborators as helpful or attractive. To learn more about how music impacts groups, LIVElab researchers will examine emotional arousal during performances with multiarray eletroencephalography, heart rate monitors, and breath and sweat sensors. They will also use special infrared motion-capture cameras to observe the contagion of movement; for example, tracking how head bobbing spreads through the audience.

Is working in a cubicle better for the brain? Does coffee-shop chatter help people retain new information? Using EEF and behavioral responses from students, LIVElab scientists will test what acoustic factors matter in a learning environment.

Hearing aids are usually tested only under quiet conditions. At LIVElab, investigators will use the active acoustics system (which has 75 speakers and 28 microphones) to make the room sound dead or like a noisy restaurant, among other scenarios, and then measure how hearing ability changes with various aid models.

Scientists want to know how brains synchronize using nonverbal interaction and how they make lightning-quick error corrections. With EEG and motion capture, LIVElab researchers plan to probe how musicians coordinate on a piece of music or how dancers’ brain sync up for important steps.

*Erratum (12/19/14): This sentence was edited after posting to correct the location given for McMaster University, which is in Hamilton, Ontario.