Mechanically Inspired Musical Insights

human factors, human body, music, technology

(ISNS) -- Creativity, technique and talent are all required to dance beautifully, or play a piece of music in a truly exceptional way, but researchers report that the discipline of biomechanics can reveal how to make the movements of performing artists more efficient and less likely to cause injuries.

Biomechanics essentially refers to applying the concepts of engineering to the human body. It is commonly used to study athletes, in an attempt to understand the human body's physical limits and maximize performance -- such as how fast someone can throw a baseball or how high someone can jump.

In the arts, the approach is different, said Gongbing Shan, a biomechanics researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

"In the arts area, what we can do, we can only make the performance more efficient to free the mind of the artist for arts creation," said Shan.

Shan frequently collaborates on research with Peter Visentin, a professional violinist and professor in the Lethbridge music department.

"What we want to know is how science can allow us as artists to engage in creativity faster, better and with more effective outcomes," said Visentin. 

Researchers can call on many tools, from motion capture technology used to review complex movements in 3-D, to a technique called electromyography, which can detect the electrical activity produced by firing muscles.

University of Southern California biomechanics researcher Jill McNitt-Gray has worked with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, including elite athletes, dancers, and musicians, in an effort to identify how people respond to physically demanding activities. The repetitive nature of practice and performance in these fields can cause overuse injuries.

"For us as scientists and as researchers, it's the same question," said McNitt-Gray. "It's just different populations [that] we're able to apply the same mechanics and neuro-control principles."

The daily hours spent practicing a musical instrument can tax the body, such as a trumpet player's facial muscles, or the shoulder of a violinist. Poor form can cause fatigue -- which makes improving technique useful to both novices and professional players. If bad technique tires a novice musician, that student may never be able to practice enough to become very good. With professionals, the buildup of trauma may become difficult to overcome.

"Musician injuries are not actually a traditional injury," said Shan. "If you don't let your body repair the medical damage, you may accumulate, accumulate, accumulate. Someday your body tells you, no, I cannot go further."

Speaking The Same Language

When Shan and Visentin began working together a decade ago, they ran into problems with basic communication.

"Words that I thought had a common usage and meant something, meant something entirely different in [Shan's] discipline," said Visentin.

They also had to overcome differences in the culture of their disciplines.

"Artists don't like scientists telling them something about what they should be doing. And scientists do not like artists telling them, 'your question is irrelevant,'" said Visentin.

Just as not all great athletes are great coaches, not all great artists can describe their techniques effectively, nor do they want to be prodded to do so.

"In this whole issue of science and music, it's very difficult, because the science people like to quantify everything in small numbers and the music people get turned off by that," said Frank Heuser, a music education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. As a graduate student, he studied under McNitt-Gray.

All the researchers indicated that clearly communicating the information's relevance to the musician or artist is crucial.

One goal of that effort, said Heuser, is to inspire musicians and instructors to say, "I can use this information, I can see the differences in the way these people are holding their instruments, and I can hear the difference it makes."

A Promising Field

In 2012, Shan and Visentin launched an academic journal called Arts Biomechanics, aimed at linking together the numerous disparate groups studying related issues. They mentioned a growing community of researchers around the world, studying instrumental musicians, conductors, dancers, singers and others.

A growing group of people already study the medical issues and injuries that affect performing musicians, but using biomechanics to study the arts promises to reveal more insights.

Shan and Visentin have found that something as seemingly simple as the preferred height of a string player's bowing arm is actually fairly complicated. It ties into two issues: both the motion of a musician's elbow and shoulder joints, and the way teachers should give instruction. Because of the arrangement of the top and bottom strings, playing on them alters the range of motion in the two joints. For this reason, a teacher's direction such as "use more of your shoulder" can be counterproductive, said Visentin.

When working with a struggling trumpet player, Heuser was able to use electromyography to show him how his tongue and other muscles were working differently than those of experienced and successful players.

"We showed him the [electromyography] pictures," said Heuser. "We let him experience how the tongue could help with pitch changes."

Four weeks later the trumpeter was playing much better and his muscle activity was more in line with normal patterns, Heuser said.

Proving Success With Performance

Avoiding injury is just one part of this effort, however. Artists find that taking a scientific approach can improve their understanding of technique and even be liberating.

"It puts you in a mode where you question all the time and you realize that there are multiple solutions for almost any problem, within certain parameters," said Heuser.  "And our task is not to impose a specific solution on a performer, but it's to help them find the right solution to suit their own playing."

As a result of his research with Shan, Visentin now approaches his violin playing differently. Instead of using just one technique to accomplish a given goal, he now recognizes that "I can do things in all sorts of ways. By giving up on a single idealized [technique], I can become a better artist and now I have a vocabulary with which to teach myself," he said.

The realization also changed how Visentin interacts with students and colleagues. By opening up different ways to respond to challenges, this approach allows musicians to use different muscles or muscle groups instead of zeroing in on a single approach and risking injury through overuse, he said.

Ideally, this approach could begin with novice musicians as they learn how to hold their instruments, such as stringed instruments, and move their bodies.

"If you're teaching violin or cello, you want to be sure that the motor patterns that you're encouraging them to develop are ones that are also going to be good for mechanically loading the body," said McNitt-Gray. "Then you can avoid injury downstream."

Chris Gorski is a writer and editor for Inside Science News Service.

Inside Science News Service is supported by the American Institute of Physics.