Meet the Professor Who Plays it by Ear

What sparks the joy when you listen to music? This and other mysteries are being investigated by Prof. Vinoo Alluri at IIITH’s Cognitive Science Lab, blurring the lines between applied sciences and humanities in the field of music cognition.

In the immortal words of Plato, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

“Can you imagine watching a movie without background music, how dull and boring it would be? People don’t understand the value of music enough”, observes Prof. Alluri. In the last 13 years, her research has revolved around how music is represented and processed in the brain. She also looks at what drives our music choices and consumption on online music streaming platforms and what it says about us as an individual.

Music Research and Life at IIITH
If not for music, how would people survive the pandemic? Music is a part of our social and cultural identity and our listening habits and choices become a part of our identity. “However, in India we think of music only as an end product. IIITH’s Cognitive Science Lab is taking a holistic approach to gain insights into this phenomenon that includes the domains of Psychology of Music and Music Information Retrieval (MIR) and Neuroscience”, says the Professor.

The interdisciplinary field of Music Cognition Research includes cognitive science, signal processing, psychoacoustics, natural language processing, statistics, informatics, optical music recognition and computational intelligence, amongst others.  After facing outright rejection of her neuroscience research for being too radical, as it went against how studies typically were done to capture neural processes in the brain while listening to music, “we now have a special space dedicated to naturalistic imaging”, observes Prof Alluri.

Naturalistic paradigm-based imaging is used to describe the setting where the brain is scanned while performing a task naturally as we would do in our everyday life, for example, listening to an entire piece of music or watching a movie. Her approach combining fMRI analysis with MIR has been described as a new trend in the field of neuromusicology. In this year’s Neuroscience and Music Conference, the premier conference for neuromusicology research, she showcased over 10 years of research findings in the naturalistic paradigm. On the MIR front, her recent work on harnessing music tags for characterising depression risk, mined from data from Last.FM listeners, received wide appreciation at the International Society for Music Information Retrieval (ISMIR 2020) conference for being the first study of its kind.

“I have been working with the University of Jyväskylä, Aarhus University, University of Oslo and NIMHANS in Bangalore on various music-specific projects”, mentions Prof. Alluri. In non-music related Neuroscience, she is working with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) on investigating brain functioning in cocaine addicts. Another project deals with techniques to define a particular brain area that can be activated or inhibited, by using transcranial magnetic stimulation, that seems to have implications in treatment of depression and addiction, among other aspects.

Prof. Vinoo’s work at the Cognitive Sciences Lab is not restricted to music information retrieval or neuroscience. The bouquet of courses she teaches includes Music, Mind and Technology, Behavioral Research: Experimental Design & Statistical Methods as well as delivering a few lectures in the course Introduction to Cognitive Science.

A musical journey unwinds
There are many layers to Prof. Alluri. Growing up in Hyderabad, music, academics and sports came easy to this all-rounder. She started learning the piano and violin at the age of seven which led to her first stage performance at the age of 9, playing in the Hyderabad Chamber orchestra as a second violinist, where the oldest artiste was 83. She continued to perform with several orchestras over the years including the University of Miami orchestra and chamber orchestras in Finland. “In Miami, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to perform as part of the orchestra for a visiting British conductor who was in need of local musicians. This in itself is a validation for a musician,” she recollects. However, she still pegs herself as an amateur musician when she looks back at the fabulous performances attended and musicians she played gigs with, during her musical journey.

Vinoo’s parents ensured that she and her brother grew up with music.  A natural sportswoman, she represented her school Bharathi Vidya Bhavan and later St. Ann’s Junior college in field events and even played volleyball for Hyderabad district at one point.

“Engineering just happened and I did a lot of music at the same time”, remarks Prof. Vinoo.  After completing her Bachelors in Electronics and Communication from Vasavi college of Engineering, the 21-year-old would take a year off to find her mojo at The Krishnamurti Foundation’s Rishi Valley School. It was Vinoo’s rendition of Bach that landed her an invitation to teach music, that extended to Math, Telugu and Aerobics, over the coming months. “I love teaching, doesn’t matter what age the students are, and I always value those occasions when I learn from my students. That’s one thing I was always brought up with – anyone can make mistakes, nobody knows it all, so it’s best to acknowledge that and learn whenever you get a chance”, she muses.

Masters in Music Engineering Technology at Miami
It was a casual Google search on music + engineering that hit pay dirt and the young musician was off on the next leg of her eventful career to the University of Miami. Interestingly, Vinoo was the first Indian girl to be accepted for the Masters Course in Music Engineering Technology at the University, a relatively new and unknown programme back then. “From being caught in the middle of hurricanes Katrina and Wilma which left us without electricity for an entire week to experiencing diverse cultures and gender identities, Miami was truly an interesting and an enriching experience!”, she reminisces.

Her thesis on classification of western classical music based on the era of composition required her to combine Music Information Retrieval (MIR) as well as aspects of music theory and signal processing. This was her starting point of her interdisciplinary research pursuits.

Ph. D in Neuroscience and Psychology at Jyväskylä
It was a hop, skip and jump from MIR in Miami to research in the highly interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Musicology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Psychology of music had always fascinated Vinoo. Her own experience with a cousin, who suffered from cerebral atrophy and highly compromised cognitive and motor skills piqued her curiosity, when she saw her respond joyously to specific kinds of music.

“I started inching my way into Neuroscience during my Ph.D. I think it was a time and place that suited me really well in many ways’, says Prof. Alluri.  Her Ph.D supervisor, mentor, friend and constant collaborator, Prof. Petri Toiviainen was also new to the domain. “We would discuss work over food and drinks and ideas would just pop”, says Prof. Alluri. She credits her father, a self-made man and CEO of his own company and Prof. Petri as major influences when it came to work ethic. Her thesis had all the bells and whistles of MIR, music psychology, neuroscience, statistical analysis and signal processing. Among the reviews of commendation received for weaving together multiple disciplines was one that described her treatise as a ‘whole polyphonic academic orchestra in her own right’. Her work would eventually lead to her first invited talk in Brazil, organized by the D’Or Institute for Research and Education, a keynote in Montreal and a book chapter. She worked briefly as a post-doctoral researcher at the NEAD (Neuroscience of Emotions and Affective Dynamics) lab at the University of Geneva before returning to India with her family and joining IIIT Hyderabad.

Vinoo and Prof. Petri Toiviainen

The Wind beneath her Wings
Vinoo is a seasoned traveller with the minimalist philosophy of a nomad. Moreover, being married to her husband who is in the Foreign Service seems to support her nomadic lifestyle. “At different points of my career, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by strong independent women like my mother and grandmothers. I don’t think I could have been where I am today without my mother, (a retired gynaecologist and civil surgeon) and all the wonderful women caretakers who have been a vital part of my journey as a young mother. These are the people I value a lot”, says the mother of 5-year-old Neel and 8-year-old Maya.

Her Kinda Jam
When asked how someone who constantly works with music unwinds, she came up with a long list. Her kind of unwinding includes cooking, baking, jigsaw puzzles, conversations over food and drinks with friends, watching films, and recently, playing music with her kids. She adds, “I love my work, and music is always playing for hours in the background. So many a time, I don’t feel that I am working in a way that requires unwinding. But the downside is that it’s easy to actually overwork myself without realising it.” Sports is also important to her. She enjoys playing badminton and did a lot of that in Finland. “Nowadays yoga helps me keep my emotions, and hence my sanity, in check,” she says.

Prof. Vinoo loves languages and apart from English, Hindi and Telugu, she can follow some French and Italian as well as a smattering of Spanish and Finnish. The 90s’ anthem ‘The Sunscreen Song’, popularized by Baz Luhrmann nicely sums up Prof. Vinoo Alluri’s attitude to life, love and fun in the sun. “Music is essential to “live” my life, to flourish. Eudaimonia is what defines my relationship with music”, reflects Vinoo. It’s an Aristotelian expression that describes the state of well-being in life and the spirit of a life lived well.

Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications; an irreverent blogger, consultant editor and author of two coffee table books. A social entrepreneur who believes that we are the harbingers of the transformation and can bring the change to better our world.


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