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Frank Russo heads interdisciplinary team studying how music affects our emotions

By Dana Yates

Frank Russo

Assistant Professor Frank Russo is exploring our moods in relation to music.

Frank Russo stands at the intersection of music, mind and technology.

An assistant professor in Ryerson’s Department of Psychology, Russo describes himself as a cognitive scientist, lifelong musician and armchair engineer. The Director of the SMART (Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology) lab, he is interested in how humans perceive and respond emotionally to music and non-verbal sound.

To that end, he has many projects on the go. His main focus, however, is in understanding how music influences the emotions.  As it turns out, lip-syncing and playing air guitar aren’t the only ways in which people act out their feelings about a song. We also react in imperceptible ways, often without even knowing it.

In experiments using electromyographic sensors, Russo and his team have been able to detect subtle facial muscle activation in participants as they listen to musical compositions. In fact, the muscle activity matched the emotional tone of the music – that is, joyful music elicited smiles and sad compositions brought out frowns. But listeners needn’t flash a big grin or grimace; the sensors noticed activity even when a muscle was only preparing to react. Russo believes that these subtle muscle activations are generated automatically by listeners as a sort of “early empathic warning system.” The same evolutionarily old system is at work whenever we try to understand how someone else is feeling.

“Although there have had been well-thought out ideas about the subject for millennia, we still don’t have a mechanistic model for how music conveys emotion,” says Russo. “This information will have wide-ranging practical applications – for example, in helping people to regulate their emotions, supporting emotional development and even optimizing the effectiveness of warning signals.”

His research involves novel interdisciplinary collaborations with a number of Ryerson researchers. Russo has worked with Deborah Fels and post-doctoral fellow Maria Karam of The Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management to develop the Emoti-Chair. This audio-tactile chair enables the deaf and hard of hearing to feel the emotion in music through a controlled display of vibration.
He has also worked with Mohammad Abdoli-Eramaki of the School of Occupational Health and Public Health to develop the Ryerson whole-body vibration simulator. Russo takes pride in having developed this system for a fraction of the cost of comparable systems using a low-frequency audio transducer and salvaged junkyard parts. The motivation of this work has been to simulate and improve the effectiveness of highway rumble strips to alert drivers.

In addition, Russo is collaborating with Sri Krishnan of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. A Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Signal Analysis, Krishnan has an interest in improving diagnostics made from physiological signals emitted by the body, particularly from diseased areas such as arthritic knee joints. Working with Russo to translate the signals into meaningful sound, Krishnan aims to develop a tool that will improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of some musculoskeletal, neurological and cardiovascular conditions.

Traditionally, humans have relied heavily on visual representations of information. But, as Russo’s work indicates, auditory messages are received loud and clear – something to remember the next time you hear a train whistle.

On that note, he had the opportunity to use his understanding of auditory cognition to help Transport Canada develop a new national train-horn standard. The system, which is now used on some VIA Rail and British Columbia Railway Company trains, employs sounds and frequencies that travel further, convey a greater sense of urgency and trigger faster reaction times from people down the track. Russo has also consulted with the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding the development of a similar system.

More recently, the work of Russo and his Psychology colleagues received a major boost in the form of provincial funding. Specifically, the Psychology Department will receive part of $7.2 million in one-time operating funding allocated to Ryerson by the Ontario government. The funds enable the Department to purchase new research tools, such as a high-density electroencephalogram (EEG) machine. The EEG, which measures and records electrical activity emitted by the brain, will play an important role in Russo’s future research plans.

With files from Antoinette Mercurio
Dana Yates is a Toronto-based freelance writer –

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