Scientific ensemble

Scientific ensemble

Researchers converge at Montreal's renowned music research centre to study the effect of music on the brain
November 1, 2007
What he calls “auditory processing of complex sounds,” she calls “music.” Robert Zatorre and Isabelle Peretz may approach music differently—he as a neuroscientist at McGill University and she as a psychologist at Université de Montréal—but both believe there is much to be learned from studying music and its effects on the brain. They each moved to Montreal in the mid-1980s at a time when, according to Peretz, science and music were at odds. Despite the divergence , these two researchers have helped forge the growing field of musical neuroscience and a new centre for its study.

The $14-million International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research (BRAMS) gathers well-known scientists from around the world to Montreal. Together, they investigate fundamental questions such as: why the brain is musical; how the nervous system allows us to listen to, remember, play, and respond to music; how these functions relate to other processes such as understanding speech; and how these processes develop and break down.

The centre offers a variety of tools to study brains from birth to old age, and a concert hall where listeners’ sensory reactions to music can be recorded and studied. BRAMS also has a soundproof studio equipped with one of the most sophisticated grand pianos on earth, a Bösendorfer, which is connected to a computer and surrounded by 24 cameras to track the very fine movements of pianists.

It was through the research partnership between Zatorre and Peretz that the need for BRAMS became clear. The journey began in 2000 when Zatorre and Peretz were invited to participate at a conference about the scientific underpinning of music on the brain, organized by the respected New York Academy of Sciences.

“I searched for the best people in the field,” recalls Rashid Shaikh, Director of Programs for the academy. “After seeking advice, Zatorre and Peretz came out as two world leaders,” he says. The fact that they were both from Montreal added to their credentials. The city holds a distinct research advantage— it possesses a concentration of experts in the neuroscience of music and auditory cognition unique to North America. These experts are drawn to the networking and technology available in Montreal, such as neuroimaging, to uncover and understand the secrets of the musical brain.

After the New York conference, Zatorre and Peretz co-edited a book, The Biological Foundations of Music, and produced their first joint research study on musical disabilities, such as deafness and dissonance. From there, they pursued their own areas of musical study, but reconnected in 2004. At that time, Peretz had just returned from sabbatical in Australia, where she was offered an appealing academic position. “The only thing that could keep me in Montreal was the creation of a research centre,” she explains. So, she asked her university for approval to create one. Much to everyone’s surprise, she received it. With many music and science experts already in Montreal, it only made sense to build a research centre there. “It is absolutely mind blowing what we got,” she enthuses, now co-director of BRAMS.


BRAMS provides an infrastructure for experimental approaches to the neuroscience of music. “No laboratory like this one exists in the world,” says Caroline Palmer, a speech and music researcher at McGill University. She has no qualms about potential rivalry among the dozen eminent researchers that use the facility. “It is a great advantage to be able to work together,” says the American, who chose to pursue her research in Montreal precisely because of its strong network of scientific expertise. “Getting feedback from other experts allows me to improve my techniques. Montreal offers the largest number of experts in the field of music and science.”

The result of a partnership between Université de Montréal and McGill University, BRAMS fosters collaboration between the schools, in particular, the faculties of music and neuroimaging groups. The main laboratory sits on the campus of Université de Montréal; three other BRAMS laboratories can be found at McGill. The main lab offers access to facilities and equipment dedicated to behavioural testing, sound recording, and musical performance. There is also access to data analysis software and programming consultants. BRAMS seeks to attract a range of international experts, and a key part of that effort is to operate in Canada’s two official languages.

BRAMS’ resources—human and technological—make it a sought-after research centre as well as training centre. Researchers and students aim to identify and understand the functions of the musical brain and what related functions it may have for areas like speech and hearing. Such research will lead to a better understanding of music’s effects on the brain, and potentially result in new musical applications and treatments for musical and auditory disorders.


Aside from the main partnership between Université de Montréal and McGill University, BRAMS researchers also collaborate internationally by supervising doctorate and post-doctorate students from the United States, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, India, and elsewhere. The coordinators count on the international reputation of the centre to help recruit fellows and junior investigators from all over the world, and at home in Quebec. Isabelle Peretz hopes the centre will have a ripple effect and entice young minds in Montreal to develop an interest and curiosity in understanding the musical brain.