Pitch Exploration Lab helps meet students’ needs for music research, creativity

Carlie Fox
January 27, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Pitch Exploration Lab, a meeting space for Penn State undergraduate and graduate students to explore various research ideas within the realm of music, is looking for new participants. 

Bryan Nichols, assistant professor of music education and director of the lab, said this creative space stemmed from an identified need for research opportunities for students. He takes pride in knowing students from all majors can come together to exercise their individual skillset and focus their energy on research topics that interest them. 

“I identified a need for teaching people about research by doing research,” said Nichols. “There are classes offered on research methods in music, but there isn’t anything for non-music majors who still may be interested in music perception. I thought it would be great if we could have a meeting space where anyone from any degree program could participate — for people who like thinking about music and how we think about music.”

The meetings do not take place in a physical lab, but a conference room that allows for open communication and a broad spectrum of ideas. During the spring 2020 semester, participants meet at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. 

Nichols said the overall goal of the lab is to cultivate research skills using applied problems such as voice dosimetry, and melodic and rhythmic error detection. Rather than conveying standardized content, the lab identifies problems and develops innovative lines of inquiry. As a collaborative and student-led environment, the space lends itself to fostering student autonomy and creativity. 

“It has been a great strength that the Pitch Exploration Lab has both music majors in the group and also many non-music majors. They are bringing strengths such as statistics knowledge, psychology knowledge, and perception and cognition knowledge. We’ve even had a couple of biology and pre-med students who want to go above and beyond what their degrees require,” said Nichols. “Working with this lab has been the most fertile research environment I’ve ever experienced in my professional life.”

The lab consists of multiple groups, but the large group meets only one hour a week. During that time they decide what to focus on — reading a research study and discussing it further, or moving on to the next topic until one really sticks with the members and their interests. If an idea strikes them, they run pilot studies and work towards a final project. They are led by a lab manager, Annie Liu, a student double-majoring in general science and musical arts.

Nichols said the lab is not bound to a strict time schedule and that there are multiple projects happening at once, making each project accessible to students. Current projects include: Rhythm Perception and Error Detection; Selective vs. Divided Attention; Voice Dosimetry; the Happy Birthday Project; and more. 

The Pitch Exploration Lab currently has an installation in Borland Project Space, where visitors can learn more about what a pitch lab is, and the kind of work participants do in the lab. The installation displays the sounds they use in music research studies via interactive stations.

“We hope that people who listen to the auditory stimuli that the lab uses can better imagine the kind of work we’re doing,” said Nichols. 

The installation, called "ScienceMeetsArt–SMART," is open through Feb. 6 in 125 Borland Building. The public is invited to a closing reception at 4 p.m. on Feb. 4.

To join the Pitch Exploration Lab team, Nichols encourages students to fill out the form linked on the lab website, http://pel.psu.edu. If students have questions, they can also reach out to him directly at bnichols@psu.edu

Last Updated January 28, 2020