The Science of Music: A Talk with Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D.

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Why do humans listen to music? Why do we create it? And what does our taste in music say about us as individuals? These were some of the questions that Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D, set out to address in his talk at an event titled, The Science of Music. Hosted by Think & Drink NYC, this talk was part of an ongoing series organized by the cultural initiative to bring experts in their fields to local bars in hopes of stimulating the minds of bar-goers. Responding to thoughts regarding previous studies on music, Wallisch said, “To be honest with you, I don’t think we fully understand what music is.”

Wallisch, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at New York University, began his lecture by explaining that what differentiates music from sound in general is repetition. “If you ask people,” Wallisch said, “to judge when [a repeating sound] becomes music, there’s a certain repetition frequency in which a random environmental noise becomes music.” For example, as Wallisch explained, water droplets falling are just sounds, but at a certain point of repetition they would be considered musical. He continued by saying that while repetition over time is necessary for something to be considered music, it is not sufficient. “If rhythm is all that matters, then music would be palindromic,” he said, meaning that it would play the same backwards as forwards. Obviously, this is not the case for most, if not all, music.

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Sound Health: Shaping Our Children’s Lives Through Music Engagement

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For the second year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts spent a weekend exploring the connections between music, the brain, and humanity. A piece of their ongoing “Sound Health” partnership, the events at the Center this past weekend focused on how important the arts are to children’s development, both experiencing art and practicing and producing it. [See also our report and KC videos from last year’s event.]

The idea partnership came up in conversations between NIH director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor Renée Fleming, and they led the chorus of brain experts and musical prodigies starting with a conversation and concert on Friday. Collins also announced a new program that will soon offer $5 million in research grants to study the effects of the arts on the brain, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.

All the Saturday events are available as webcasts—including a drumming circle led by Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart! 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. Many have small sections where the audience can participate; if you really want to get your rhythm on, jump down to the Interactive Drum Circle recording and have at it for a good 60 minutes.

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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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Sondheim and Pinker on Music and Emotion

When it comes to explanations for human behavior, preeminent experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, Ph.D., adamantly believes that genes matter. When others question this position, claiming that attributing emotion and behavior to genetics is merely a way of evading responsibility, Pinker will often offer a cultural rather than a scientific response:

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,

You gotta understand

It’s just our bringing up-ke,

That gets us out of hand.

Our mothers are all junkies,

Our fathers all are drunks.

Golly Moses naturally we’re punks

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How music rewires the brain

Evidence continues to grow that musical training may not
only serve as a powerful tool for treating mental illnesses but may also rewire
the brain to be more nimble at learning math and other subjects.

This ability to alter brain connections was the focus of a
recent “Music and the Brain” lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington,
D.C. Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor
of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical
School, outlined three lines of neurological research into musical experience
and explained why scientists are optimistic about its potential for education
and rehabilitation.

“Music making engages quite a lot of real estate in the
brain,” he said. “We wanted to know if everyone has the potential to become an
accomplished musician, or if [musicians] start off with an atypical brain.”

In adults, for instance, he said, musicians with a long
history of practice tend to have bigger corpus callosa—the bundles of fibers
that connect the right and left halves of the brain—as well as enhanced motor
and auditory processing areas than do non-musicians.
Many of these changes were specific to the primary type of instrument used by a
musician. But everyone seems able to benefit: Adult non-musicians who took a
crash course in piano showed changes in their sequencing, musical and math
abilities even after just two weeks.

Schlaug also outlined results from a four-year study of
young children he is conducting with Ellen
Winner
, a psychology professor at Boston University. After 15 months,
children who began practicing music showed, as expected, improvements in motor
skills and melody and rhythm identification tasks. There were also suggestive,
but not statistically significant, evidence that the children were beginning to
excel in nonmusical tasks such as vocabulary and abstract reasoning. This type
of extension into a nonrelated mental ability is known as “far transfer.”

We have covered many of these findings in the context of
neuroeducation, a new field that seeks to use neuroscience findings to improve
teaching practices. Schlaug and Winner, for instance, were featured speakers
at the “Learning, Arts and the
Brain
” summit in May, where they presented their 15-month data.

Since then, however, data from 30 months into the child
study has been collected; although it is still in the process of being
analyzed, far transfer trends seem to be continuing, Schlaug said, increasing
interest in music’s potential educational benefits. Since the May conference,
Schlaug and his colleagues have also compiled videos demonstrating the extent
and rate of improvement in musical ability in their study participants.

Schlaug also presented a video showing how extensive rhythm
and singing therapy helped a four-year old boy with autism speak his very first
words. “Music,” Schlaug said, “may provide alternative entry into broken brain
systems that may not be linking up properly.” (The use of music for autism is
just the tip of the iceberg; music is also being used as treatment for spinal
cord injuries, stroke and other conditions. Look for more extensive coverage of
these therapies in the coming weeks.)

Schlaug’s presentation was the final “Music and the
Brain
” lecture of 2009. The series, presented by the Library of Congress
and the Dana Foundation, will resume on Jan. 21 with “Music, Memories, and the
Brain,” in which Petr Janata of the University of California, Davis, will outlining
brain imaging results from people who have experienced musical “trances.” As an
early Christmas present, the LOC has released free podcasts
of earlier lectures in the series.

-Aalok Mehta

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