Mason Gross Alumnus Now a Scientist Who Studies Birdsongs

Mason Gross Alumnus Now a Scientist Who Studies Birdsongs

Eathan Janney also tunes pianos in Peru, while overseeing a global piano tuning business

Eathan Janney teaching
Eathan Janney earned a degree in jazz piano performance from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
Photo: Courtesy of Eathan Janney

'My musical background was an asset as opposed to a liability in the world of science.'
– Eathan Janney, lead author on a paper examining the song of Australia’s pied butcherbirds, one of the world’s most musical birds, and how much their songs have in common with music created by humans. 

Knowing he has a very analytical brain, it made sense that Eathan Janney would aim for a career in science. He enrolled at Lake Forest College, not far from his home in Chicago, with his eye on a career in physics. But Janney always had a strong interest in music. Late at night, he could often be found playing piano in the school’s practice rooms. Barely a semester went by before he decided to pursue a music degree. He transferred to Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where he earned a degree in jazz piano performance.

“My goal was to be a professional jazz pianist,” he said.

Life’s plans rarely go according to schedule, as Janney learned. These days, he is still involved in music, but only occasionally as a performer. Janney manages a global piano tuning business while living in Peru. He left for South America in September 2015, just after a six-year stint working on his Ph.D. in biology with an international team of researchers from the City University of New York – where he earned his doctorate – New Jersey Institute of Technology, the Freie Universität Berlin and Macquarie University in Australia.

Janney was the lead author on a paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, examining the song of Australia’s pied butcherbirds, one of the world’s most musical birds, and how much their songs have in common with music created by humans. The paper is unusual because it relies on input not only from musicians but from biologists, neuroscientists and engineers as well.

“My musical background was an asset as opposed to a liability in the world of science,” he said.

The group recorded the various sounds that the birds made and deconstructed them, finding that the birds have complex phrases comprised of motifs that they often use again and again. Similar to jazz musicians, the pied butcherbirds play around with their tunes, balancing repetition and variation. 

“Once we found these motifs, we were curious how they were distributed,” he said. “We grasped the songs visually using color maps. You can see a sense of uniformity. It’s actually very beautiful to look at.”

While at Rutgers, Janney learned piano tuning from the full-time piano technician at Mason Gross and found he had a real knack for it.

“It’s pretty difficult making a living as a musician,” he said. “Piano tuning was interesting and it was a good way to make an income while also using the analytical/science/math side of my brain that I had been craving. My brain has both – a creative, open-minded, abstract side and also a very rational side. Piano tuning was a nice mix of both.”

Eathan Janney tuning a piano
Eathan Janny owns the Floating Piano Factory, a global piano tuning business with apprentice technicians in New York and Hong Kong. 
Photo: Courtesy of Eathan Janney
After graduating from Mason Gross in 2002, Janney started a piano tuning business and played gigs with jazz groups around New Brunswick. But just as he was once tugged back into music, he now felt the urge to study science again. He moved back to the Midwest and began self-study while also attending neuroscience lectures at the University of Chicago. He took pages and pages of notes, and although he often didn’t understand what he wrote, he was determined to learn. In 2009, he moved to New York City with a goal to study neuroscience but an unclear idea of how that would happen. One day, he met with a piano technician who tuned at New York University to discuss business. To his surprise, this tuner’s wife was a neuroscientist who studied birds at CUNY.

“I met with her and offered to do volunteer work, even cleaning bird cages,” he said.

So Janney began working in the bird lab.

“They noticed I was very serious, enthusiastic and sharp,” he said. “They mentored me and helped me make the transition from music back into science. The study we developed was very exciting for everyone involved.”

All the while, Janney, 36, has continued running his business, which he calls the Floating Piano Factory. He currently supervises five apprentice technicians (three in NY and two in Hong Kong) that he hired and trains through Skype. He believes his unique business model is beneficial from several angles. Customers get a reduced rate for using an apprentice, and that apprentices get paid while gaining experience.

These apprentices work for Floating Piano Factory in New York and Hong Kong while Janney manages the business from Peru. He moved to South America in the fall of 2015 with his wife, Christine Mladic, whose research for her own Ph.D. required her to spend a year there.

“I always wanted to live in a foreign country and learn the language through immersion,” he said. “It’s not easy running a business from abroad but it’s an interesting challenge to take on.”

Although money is often tight, Janney doesn’t charge his customers in Peru. He considers it a gesture of goodwill. The way he sees it, they are not the only ones getting something out of the transaction.

“I meet people and find common interests,” he said. “I learn about their culture, their families and the history of their piano. It’s an opportunity to get value out of the interaction besides money. The people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had were very valuable. It’s hard to experience that same value if it were a business-focused transaction.”

At the end of 2016, Janney and his wife plan to move back to New York. But for now, they are enjoying their adventure in the Land of the Incas.
“It’s beautiful here every day,” he said. “There is so much nature to experience.”