Music and Meaning: Hitting the Right Notes

Relating neuroscience to the humanities, politics, and other disciplines is a primary goal of the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University. Part of its mission is to sponsor programs that examine the implications of brain and other kinds of research and debate issues and ideas with scientists and inquisitive audience members.

The center’s most recent program was titled, “Music and Meaning,” and featured three prominent researchers who study the relationship between the brain and music: David Huron, arts and humanities distinguished professor, School of Music & Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Ohio State University; Aniruddh D. Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University; and Elizabeth Tolbert, professor of musicology, Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The moderators for the event were two Columbia University scholars: Andrew Goldman, a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience; and Jacqueline Gottlieb, professor of neuroscience.

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Image: Shutterstock

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Sound Health: Music and the Mind

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center for the Arts have teamed up to explore the connections among music, the brain, and human wellness. The idea for the “Sound Health” partnership came up in conversations between NIH director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor Renée Fleming. In March NIH hosted a science workshop, where researchers shared what they know about sound and sense with Fleming and other musicians, scientists, and music therapists. This past weekend, they moved to the Kennedy Center for a shared performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and a day of talk and music-making for the general public.

Bone flute from Geissenklösterle, a cave in Germany. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

“Music is a critical part in understanding how the brain works,” Collins said on Friday. It’s likely that early people made music before developing formal language–we’ve found  flutes that are more than 35,000 years old. “It’s critical to understanding” how the oldest circuits in our brains work, and it can add “new and stronger scientific basis” to the range of techniques that music therapists use to help people recover from stroke, trauma, chronic pain, and other maladies.

All the Saturday events except a kids’ movement workshop were recorded; I’m including them here. They are all worth a watch or two, with engaging scientists talking interspersed with great musicians performing. Together they add up to more than seven hours, so take your time! I’m listing them in the order of the day, but if you want the general overview, skip down to “The Future of Music and the Mind” (but that is the only one without a musical performance).

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