What is your background?

I started playing the drums when I was 13 years old and wanted to keep on doing music.

For some reason, I wasn’t confident enough about becoming a musician, so I thought maybe I could work with music in some kind of technological fashion, “Maybe I can become a sound engineer?”. And then I figured I should just start by studying engineering. Later I realized that I don’t want to work as an engineer, but research is fun. For various reasons I started attending courses in music and acoustics, and speech technology. Courses offered specifically in the Department of Speech, Music and Hearing at KTH. I also studied musicology. When I finally did my last project for engineering at that department, I felt this was a really cool place. At that time, it was very inter- and trans-disciplinary. Many people from logopedics, singers, physicists, engineers – a lot of fun and charismatic people. And a laid back and nice environment like a big family. A cool place to be and do research. That’s how my interest for research got sparked.

What research methods do you usually apply?

When I do motion-capture studies on musicians, it is mainly empirical research that combines acoustic measurements with motion capture approaches. But now I’m also doing more and more qualitative research to see what can be gained from the interview material or to ask people about their experiences with it.

I think I have also become more transdisciplinary in the kind of approaches I use. It began as an engineering approach with music acoustics and the measurement of sound, long-term average spectra etc. But when I went into motion studies of drummers, it was rather untouched terrain, and not many people did it at the time. I’ve learned a lot of different things on the way, and maybe not all approaches are that efficient. But I also started doing psychological research and perception studies, so I think what I’m most excited about is mixed methods. Using both quantitative measurements from sensors together with qualitative data and perceptual evaluations. In the future, I hope to be able to work more with the first-person experience of the mover. I think this is a really nice combination, but also very challenging.

Sofia Dahl during the interview. Photo by Anna Xambó.
Sofia Dahl during the interview. Photo by Anna Xambó.

You started first with engineering and continued with musicology studies?

At some point I realized that I wasn’t really going to work as the software developer or circuit designer I was educated for. I took a break and played music and studied musicology. I wanted to learn more about sound and vibration, and when I got back to finish my studies, I also attended courses in music acoustics, electro acoustics, and such.

At that time in Sweden it was not so easy to combine both (musicology and technology). I ended up with an electrical engineering diploma, lower level, with many additional courses, that qualified me to be accepted as a PhD student.

That is the route I took. Now I can say I am an engineer, but I am not a typical engineer. I wouldn’t feel comfortable working as an engineer in a company.

What is next?

The drumming studies have been following me for a long time. But I also do other things, I have been studying facial expressions and done timing studies, for example perception in drift in tempo. Now I am very committed in trying to bring together the perception of time and this motivational factor to be found in music. Perhaps looking at how this can be combined in rehabilitation applications. Or to understand what makes people want to move. It actually reaches out to different things. I tend to put my fingers in many jars.

It is mixed. I’m also a drummer, right, and that is not too common either, being a female drummer. At least it did not use to be when I was between 15 and 20 years old. The most common questions that you’d get was “are you playing in a girls band?” or either “are you any good?”, along with “it is not very common is it?!”.

A project I did in musicology was to meet and interview drummers about women and percussion. I started to dig a little bit in that because I was so tired of that question and wanted to find out how many females there actually were. Also, I came from an engineering education where there were, if you were lucky, maybe 20 percent women over all. Then I started at the Speech, Music and Hearing department, that I described already as a mixed environment, so that was a very supportive place to be. It was more when you went out to conferences or meetings that you realized how few we are. Sometimes a speaker opened with “Dear lady and gentlemen” because I was the only woman in the room. But as a researcher I haven’t suffered in any way. The research I’m doing has led me to a lot of communities where there turn to be more women, like in music perception and cognition where there is more of a mix. I haven’t thought as much on that now as I have experienced the gender difference more when studying in engineering and playing in rock bands. That is when I noticed more how judgemental people can be about who we are.

Did you have a role model or mentor?

As I said, this environment was very friendly and supportive, and still is. I had, and have, lots of great colleagues. At KTH if you were frustrated about different things, you could go to fellow PhD students but also older colleagues. During my postdoc, I learned a lot from working with David Huron, that was really an inspiration period for many reasons. I’m not sure about the role model as I don’t have a very clear music tech profile, so it is difficult to model on one person. But in terms of women that have stood out in a societal context, I think I would mention Robyn, the Swedish pop artist. Not because her music is my favourite, but I think she is one person who started very young, not knowing anything, but who is now promoting the Tekla Festival for young women to be curious about technology. I think that is great and for that I admire her.

What advice would you give to young women interested pursuing a career in music technology?

Be curious and try things out. Nowadays it is so much easier, a lot of courses and material are accessible. In many things it is easier to try things out. Try to program or find a community that will support you. I also discovered the loads of meets-up and small communities that I think can support you as a beginner, where you don’t have to fear that you’re judged because you want to try things out. I imagine the main hindrance becomes weather you’re interested enough and you can to put the energy into it. Be curious, goof around! I never regretted that I took the engineering education. Even if I’ve never felt that I would work as an electrical engineer, I feel I’ve been able to use that knowledge or that approach in many other ways.

Do you have anything to add?

I think it is a nice project and I look forward to hear from other views and experiences that you’re collecting.