Texas Tech University

The PeARL: Scientific Discovery at the Heart of the Arts

Amanda Castro-Crist

December 27, 2018

(VIDEO) Housed within the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts School of Music, the Performing Arts Research Lab leads interdisciplinary research through campus, community and global collaborations.

Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA) houses the School of Music, the School or Art and the School of Theatre & Dance. Every day, the faculty, staff and students of the TCVPA conduct performances, host exhibitions and lead initiatives to enrich communities through the arts.

Through the college's Performing Arts Research Lab (PeARL), they also conduct groundbreaking research, leading interdisciplinary projects that focus on the intersection of the arts with other fields like medicine, education, linguistics and psychology.

PeARL logo

Founded in 2017 by David Sears, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary arts, and Peter Martens, an associate professor of music theory and the associate director of graduate programs in the School of Music, the PeARL expanded on existing work within the college by creating a space where TCVPA students and faculty could conduct empirical research about the visual and performing arts while also collaborating with researchers in other fields of study.

"Thanks in large part to scholars like Peter Martens, Carla Cash and Jan Killian, the School of Music already has a reputation for promoting interdisciplinary scholarship that borrows methods and techniques from the experimental sciences," Sears said. "One of our initial goals was to expand on this by creating a physical space where students from across the college could conduct experimental and computational research not only in music, but also in theater, dance and the visual arts."

The PeARL looks a bit different from what people might expect when they hear the word "lab." In place of Bunsen burners and beakers, there are computer workstations, network servers, hardware interfaces to record participant responses, and, at one end of the room, a sound attenuation booth used to conduct auditory experiments.

Over the past 18 months, the lab has conducted research that examines whether music can improve emotion recognition in individuals with autism spectrum disorder; treats aphasia in stroke patients using musical stimuli; analyzes large data sets from the visual arts using computational methods from big data; and discovers patterns in the visual and performing arts that audience members might learn and remember. The PeARL collaborations have received funding from several external entities, including two recent Arts in Medicine grants from The CH Foundation and a collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation.

The research projects conducted in the PeARL feature collaborators from places like the College of Education's Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research, the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Psychological Sciences and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. Collaborators outside of the Texas Tech University System include researchers from the Language and Music Cognition Lab at the University of Maryland, the Institute of Computational Perception at Johannes Kepler University in Austria and the Department of Medical Physics and Acoustics at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, to name a few.

During the summer, lab members presented five papers at two sites of the International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition. Sears presented at the gathering in Graz, Austria, while Martens was joined in Montreal by two students, Lucas Hess, then an undergraduate, and doctoral student Hannah Percival.

After Hess led a presentation, he was approached by senior researchers attending the conference who asked to collaborate or borrow parts of his work for their own research.

"I don't think he realized at the time how neat that was," Martens said. "But it's those positive responses that get the students fired up about their areas of study and make this lab a known entity. We're pretty new compared to some out there, in Canada and across the globe, but we're doing exciting work that's reaching very far from Lubbock, Texas."

Because the arts play such a fundamental role in everyday life, researchers in the PeARL strive to better understand that role using the many methods of inference developed in the experimental and computational sciences.

"In so doing, we also might discover possible research applications that could improve the health and well-being of our society," Sears said. "There are all kinds of patented projects and ideas that didn't just pop into somebody's head. It's really fundamental, particularly in a university environment, to create spaces where researchers can ask questions that don't always have obvious answers or that don't readily provide solutions to everyday problems.

"It's in that free, open space of ideas that suddenly, you fall upon something that is incredibly useful. We have created a space like that through the PeARL."