New eye-tracking software, developed by three University of Alaska Anchorage professors, is providing insight into how students read music.

Dr. Timothy Smith, a professor of piano at UAA, said he learned about an eye-tracking device that professors Bogdan Hoanca and Kenrick Mock were using to study eye movement. Smith was curious if the same concept could be used to examine how a music student sight reads -- or plays -- a piece at first glance.

Together, the three professors developed software that works with an eye-tracking device. The device, which sits in front of the student at the piano, uses infrared light that follows their gaze as they read the music, and as their eyes dart down to their hands. Reading music, or sight-reading, is an important but challenging skill for music majors.

"In a particularly difficult spot in the music, sometimes they tend to hold up and fixate different times in the same area," Smith said. "We have ideas where the eyes are looking, but this hardware and software setup can tell us exactly."

After a student sight-reads a piece, the results are immediate. Smith can pull up the same musical score on a laptop, with data showing where the students' eyes focused and for how long. He can then give the student feedback on how to improve their sight-reading skills.

The professors' ultimate goal, however, is for music students to be able to purchase this software and eye-tracking device so they can examine the results on their own.

"Not needing a teacher there 100 percent of the time to give students instructional feedback -- that's really where we're headed with this now," Smith said.

The software creators are looking into developing a smaller setup of the current eye-tracking device, which costs about $50,000. They'd like this technology to be available in the $100-$200 range.

UAA's music department is just one of several interested in eye-tracking research. Hoanca says other departments, such as psychology, economics and philosophy, are also curious about the telling body language of eye movement.

"We've done some research looking at how people make moral decisions and we got started by a lengthy discussion on plagiarism that was happening on campus," Hoanca said.

According to Hoanca, there are very personal patterns to people's eye movements that can be translated.

"Typically, when people are under stress, when they're lying, when they're troubled by something, their pupil tends to dilate or have certain dynamics that can be recognized," Hoanca said.

So far, about 25 music students have participated in the study. It has been helpful, says piano performance major Hayatt Chettfour.

"It pretty much tells you where your trouble areas are, where you're going away from the page, where exactly you're fixating, and how long you're lingering," Chettfour. "It really does help."

A patent is pending on the eye-tracking software the three professors created.