“Music is not an extra, it's a basic necessity”

Professor Anja Volk sings with choir at the end of inaugural lecture

Een koor zingt tijdens oratie Anja Volk
Anja Volk (in gown) sings amidst her colleagues at the end of her inaugural lecture.

Music and computer science are the two passions of Anja Volk. By connecting these two fields, the professor of Music Information Computing hopes to unlock the fundamental role of music in our lives. On Tuesday, April 16, she delivered her inaugural lecture. With a surprising twist: she may be the first professor to have left the University Hall singing.

It took some pleading with the rector magnificus to deviate from protocol, because the rules around inaugural lectures are strict and normally, providing the music is not up to professors themselves. “When entering and leaving the Aula, the organist plays a classical piece. As professor, you have no say over what piece gets played”, says Volk, who has been affiliated with Utrecht University since 2006. “I received exceptional permission from the rector, because music is the subject of my research and I really wanted to show the connecting element of music.”

Volk chose the musical piece 'Song Seven: Si Le Le' by Bobby McFerrin, an artist known for composing pieces that everyone can easily participate in. “It was actually an educational demonstration, because I always do this number with my students, who often have no musical background. The rhythm is easy for the audience to clap along to, and we built it up from there, with the choir adding more melody lines and harmonies bit by bit. In my lecture, I had already shown that my research field requires a lot of collaboration. It was magical to experience how beautiful and connecting it is to then actually create something together.”

The fundamental meaning of music

The demonstration fit perfectly with the content of Volk’s research: unlocking the fundamental meaning that music has in our lives, regardless of background or skills. Volk does this by combining her two passions: music and computer science. “Music is a basic necessity. It is not an extra, it is crucial for our development and for society. Music can connect, empower, and inspire people, getting them moving and comforting them. My research field revolves around understanding how music is put together in a way that gives people this experience.”

Thanks to new technologies such as artificial intelligence, we are increasingly able to unravel the complexity of music. Within her young research group Music Information Computing, Volk develops methods to unravel how music is built up from patterns, such as melody, harmony and rhythm. This new knowledge opens up a world of applications in the field of music therapy, music education, personalised music recommendations and cultural heritage, according to the professor.

Music can connect, empower and inspire people. Artificial intelligence can help understand what makes people have this experience.

Anja Volk, Professor of Music Information Computing

For example, Volk was involved in the development of an online search engine for Dutch folk songs, in collaboration with the Meertens Institute. Thanks to an algorithm that recognises patterns in melody, the search engine can track down similar pieces of music in a catalog of more than seven thousand songs from 1950-1980.

Serious games

Volk's research field is highly interdisciplinary. “We work with music therapists, neuroscientists, psychologists and social scientists. But also within computer science, everything comes together: game design, software technology, artificial intelligence, visualisations and much more. In my eyes, Music Information Computing is the place where everything comes together: fundamental research in the field of algorithms and software and their application to modelling musical structures and interaction.”

In recent years, Volk has particularly focused on applications in the field of health, well-being and inclusion. For example, Volk develops serious games within her interdisciplinary team. These can help children and adults with autism or ADHD to regulate sensory stimuli. She also develops music-based video games that allow children with and without visual impairments to play together. Volk: “I think it is important to apply my knowledge to contribute to creating an inclusive society. The fact that, through developing such methods, I can now create a context where, for example, blind and sighted children can play together - I find that truly beautiful.”

Role model

Volk also tries to promote inclusion within her research field. “I can well imagine that there are people who think that a career in science is not for them, because they do not have a role model they can identify with. My ideal would be that no one would have to feel that psychological threshold anymore. That is why I pay a lot of attention to inspiring the next generation of researchers, by working a lot with students, investing in interdisciplinary education and contributing to the strategic theme Dynamics of Youth.” Volk has also set up a global mentoring programme for people who work at the intersection of music and computer science, a network specifically for women in computer science, WICS, and the diversity committee for the Department of Information and Computing Sciences.

For Volk, the choir, with which she started the song at the end of her inaugural lecture, perfectly symbolised the collaboration between people with different backgrounds. “Students, PhD candidates, alumni, university lecturers and professors and an HR colleague all sang together on a shared rhythm, each with their own voice. That is academia at its finest.”