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Portrait of a researcher

Marrying engineering and music

Caroline Traube

FACULTY OF MUSIC

Director, Laboratoire informatique, acoustique et musique

Researcher at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology

Caroline Traube grew up in a family of musicians, where a grand piano was part of the furniture. She studied music from a very young age, but her scientific bent steered her toward engineering rather than the conservatory. “I very quickly found that I missed music, and that’s why I decided to go into electrical engineering.” While that discipline may seem a long way from her love of music, Traube was sure she was doing the right thing. “Telecommunications was a flourishing field, and I knew that everything related to voice processing, synthesis and voice recognition would bring me closer to music.”

After doing some of her PhD studies in computer research in music and acoustics at Stanford, she accepted what seemed to be a pitch-perfect position for her in the Faculty of Music at the Université de Montréal. “I was able to complete my doctorate while teaching performance students. That was when I realized the gap between the kind of questions scientific researchers study and those that performers ask themselves! My dissertation topic took a new turn and in the end was influenced by my contact with musicians.”

In her research, Traube looks at the timbre of instruments from the angle of both acoustics and the performer’s experience. She uses a phonetic paradigm to study the timbre of musical instruments and the relationships between the physical features of an instrument, the way it is played and the perception of instrumental sounds. “I think the original thing about my work is the fact that I am conducting research for performers, but also with performers. I’m developing a number of projects in co-operation with them: they’re not just research subjects; I’m trying to answer the questions they ask themselves.” 

Her ideal work setting would be truly hybrid and interdisciplinary. “I need this blend of technology, computer science as it relates to music, and acoustics. I was unhappy without music, but I couldn’t live without science, either! I find my personal balance by combining both realms.”

Was it easy for you to adapt to Quebec?

I knew absolutely nothing about Quebec when I arrived in Montréal. California had been a real cultural shock for me, coming from Belgium. But I felt at home here in Montréal straight away. I found the francophone community I’d been missing, along with everything I had learned to love about North America. It may be a cliché, but it’s true!

How do music students react to your scientific approach?

I sense a growing interest on their part in scientific research. I co-direct performance students who are doing fairly advanced work in biomechanics or in analyzing instrumental timbre. In the sports world, for instance, it’s unthinkable for a high-level athlete to know nothing about physiology. I think we’re heading in that direction in music, with better practical knowledge of sound.

How do you balance your work and family life?

Certainly I’d like to spend more time with my two young sons, but I really think Quebec has the best men in the world! My husband is very involved around the house and with the children, and that’s essential.