Q&A: Bryan Nichols

Bryan Nichols’ Pitch Exploration Lab unites music and non-music majors.

illustration of a music conductor with various musical icons and symbols by Nadia Radic


Q: What’s the idea behind the Pitch Exploration Lab?

NICHOLS: When I got here five years ago, I thought about assembling a group of students that could have a regular meeting about research in music perception, cognition, and production. I wanted to create a broad community that would include graduate and undergraduate students, and also students outside of music but with interests in music, to help them gain research and writing skills, and data collection experience. Ours is a space where people can share ideas about pitch research, participate in programs we’re already running, and ultimately, understand how people are interacting with music, and what leads them to make more music and how.


Q: What are your main research projects?

NICHOLS: Our original interest was in how people sing, and what makes singing easier or harder. We’ve expanded into areas like pitch error detection, rhythmic perception, and rhythmic error dictation. We’re also looking at features related to musicians’ melodic dictation skill—that’s the ability to hear something and classify the intervals and the rhythms in your head, which is important for all musicians and conductors. We’d like to determine what contributes to success in those areas, so that we might zero in on what the training of musicians could be in the future.


Q: How does the diversity of students’ majors contribute to your work?

NICHOLS: I am trying to develop the skills that students who major in music and STEM might need later in graduate school or in their jobs. For example, we have a physics major who is interested in acoustics, which is a physics-based discipline. He could end up designing speakers for a speaker company, or he’ll be working in acoustic architecture, or helping to enhance the itty-bitty speakers in earbuds. We have statistics majors who get to apply their skills to problems that weren’t designed for the statistics homework set. We have one student who plays trumpet in the Blue Band, we have a data science major, and a neuroscience major who is a soloist in one of the choirs. When the students get together, they get to find out they do actually have a common vocabulary about music and the human experience. 


Bryan Nichols is a professor of music education and conducts the University Choir.