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Chicken or human brain, sitar in science lab

 

New Delhi, Dec. 12: Melodies from a sitar have been wafting into an incubator at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences here for the past 18 years, exposing groups of chicken embryos to the recorded sounds.

Shashi Wadhwa, anatomy professor at AIIMS, has used the sounds of the sitar among other acoustic stimuli to explore how exposure to sounds influences the development of embryonic brains — with some tantalising results.

She is among a small group of scientists in India who either have already used or intend to use sitar music as a research tool for diverse objectives in distant fields — embryonic development, computer science and brain science.

While Ravi Shankar mesmerised music connoisseurs and untrained amateurs for decades, the sitar has in recent years slipped into scientific laboratories, at times albeit only inadvertently.

Wadhwa, who has used sitar music to study how sounds influence the development of the brain in growing chicken embryos, says it was a random choice of a stringed instrument that could deliver soothing melodies.

Her studies show that the music as well as species-specific calls — chicken calls, in this case — both have a positive effect on the development of the brain. Chicks with prenatal exposure to either the music or species-specific calls appear to have better spatial learning skills than chicks not exposed to these sounds. “This is not a sitar-specific effect,” she said. “It’s effect of patterned, rhythmic sounds.”

At IIT Bombay, Preeti Rao, professor of electrical engineering, is engaged in a project to build software tools to make the search of vast archives of musical melodies easy.

The IIT Bombay team is currently focused on analysing vocal classical Hindustani music, but plans to eventually advance to instrumental music. One example of a future goal, Rao said, would be to characterise the acoustic signatures of sitars which, combined with appropriate software tools, would facilitate quick retrieval of sitar melodies from musical archives.

“From an acoustic point of view, sitar music is much harder to analyse than vocal music,” said Xavier Serra, director of the music technology group at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.

“It is harder because music from the sitar is a combination of sounds from the main strings and the sympathetic strings,” said Serra, who is analysing the classical music of India, northern Africa, Turkey and China with local collaborators.

Clinical psychologist Shantala Hegde at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore is another scientist who hopes to add the sitar to her repertoire of tools to examine how music stirs emotions.

Hegde is currently using musical notes from a flute to find out how specific ragas appear to evoke emotions in volunteers untrained in music —for instance, Yaman raga is associated with happiness, while Lalat or Marwa ragas have been linked to sadness. In her experiments, volunteers listen to various ragas while she tracks changes in their brains through electroencephalograph readings.

The next phase of this study, she said, would compare the effects of different instruments, perhaps the flute and the sitar, to determine how variations in timbre and other acoustic features might change the emotional responses of listeners.