Published: Dec. 7, 2022 By

 Ryan Vachon)Photo: Grace Leslie at the recent ATLAS Research Open House. (Credit: Ryan Vachon)

In 2008, researchers exploring two caves in the Swabian Jura mountains of Germany uncovered a handful of small, bone flutes. The finds were at least 35,000 years old, making them the oldest known instruments carved by Homo sapiens. The most complete measured just 8 inches long and had been fashioned from the wing bone of a griffon vulture.

Humans, these and other discoveries seem to suggest, have been making music for longer than we’ve lived in cities or grown crops. 

Electronic musician, flutist and researcher Grace Leslie wants to know why. 

She believes that music, from religious hymns to Taylor Swift anthems, may touch something deep in the human brain—a hardwired need, perhaps, to sit around a fire or in a concert arena and feel connected to the people around us.

“Music is found in disparate cultures all around the world. It’s an innately human ability,” she said. “And in most of those cultures, it’s used to draw people together.”

Leslie joined CU Boulder this fall as an assistant professor in the ATLAS Institute and the College of Music. Her work melds art, engineering and neuroscience to probe the millennia-spanning relationship between humans and a good tune, and whether the right kind of music can help to heal the body and brain.

She’s also a performer who taps into her own body to create music. In her flute concerts, Leslie often comes onstage wearing a medical device called an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap. The high-tech headgear transforms the rhythm of her brainwaves into hypnotic sounds that become part of her performance—the mind of the musician laid bare for an audience.  

“How can we use that ability of music to create closeness to develop new technologies that can improve the connection between people?” Leslie asked. “That’s the challenge facing researchers.”

Speaking motherese

 Ryan Vachon)It was that same sense of connection that first drew Leslie to music. 

She was born into a musical family—her grandmother was a piano teacher, and she learned to play when she was 4 years old. In fifth grade, she picked up the flute. There was something different, she felt, about playing music in a band.

“The flute really stuck with me because of the social element of it,” Leslie said. “As a shy person who wasn’t athletic, it was a way for me to feel like I was part of a group.”

She isn’t alone in that feeling. In a 2021 study, Leslie and her colleagues played music inspired by human heartbeats to participants looking at a series of images of people with different facial expressions: angry faces, sad faces and more. Just hearing those sounds changed how the subjects viewed the emotions on display in the photos—a sign that music may, somehow, be inherently tied to human empathy.

Some scientists theorize that our mothers may be largely responsible for this link. As the first person many humans interact with in a meaningful way, mothers communicate with their infants through what researchers call “motherese”—a language built on lullabies, coos and even the pum-pum of the human heart. 

“It’s a musical language that mothers sing to their babies, which is a way of communicating affect to a child that hasn't learned spoken language yet,” Leslie said. “That mother-infant bond is important to the survival of the human race.”

In a new project funded through the U.S. National Science Foundation, she’s setting out to discover just how powerful that sort of music can be. She’ll travel to neonatal care units, where mothers often can’t communicate with their infants. Leslie will examine whether piping in heartbeat-like music to infants and their mothers can help them experience less stress and maybe even leave the hospital sooner.

“Is there something inherently healing for women going through that experience to be able to form that connection to their children through music?” she asked. 

As a first step, Leslie plans to run similar experiments on healthy mothers and babies in her lab on the CU Boulder campus this spring. Her work is part of the College of Music’s new, interdisciplinary focus on developing  “universal musicians”—or multiskilled, multifaceted artists who use music to engage with society.

Read Daniel Strain's full, fascinating interview with Grace Leslie and learn more about how her work is breaking barriers through her concert series, "Vessels," that draws on the work of early pioneers in electronic music ... and enjoy a video of Leslie in a "Vessels" performance!  

Photo (right): Leslie makes adjustments during her performance at ATLAS. (Credit: Ryan Vachon)