What Happens When Music Meets the Mind?

August 1, 2011

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Eastman Office of Communications, 585-274-1050

What happens to your body when you sing a note or play an instrument? How do babies learn to differentiate sounds and then words? What muscle movements and mental processes do speaking and singing have in common? What happens when the Beatles or Beethoven meet the brain?

The answers to all these questions and many more are being answered by research in the fascinating area of music cognition, which takes in elements of music performance and scientific study of the brain, and relates to everything we hear from speech to music.

This comprehensive field will take center stage at the Eastman School of Music from August 11 to 14, when the School hosts the biennial meeting of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition (SMPC), bringing more than 200 scholars and speakers to Rochester.

Music cognition is an interdisciplinary field in which the methods of cognitive science – experimental, computational, and neurological – are applied to musical issues and problems. The beginnings of modern music cognition study date back to late 19th century Europe, but the growth of the field in North America is relatively recent; the Society itself was founded only in 1990. It has grown rapidly since then, and its members represent the worlds of science and of music across the globe. At the University of Rochester, the Music Theory department in the Eastman School and the Brain & Cognitive Sciences Department in Arts, Sciences and Engineering collaborate on an active, supportive environment for music cognition study and research.

Eastman Professor of Music Theory Elizabeth Marvin co-organized the symposium with her Eastman colleague, Associate Professor of Music Theory David Temperley. She notes that several Eastman studio professors, including oboist Richard Killmer, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra clarinetist Ken Grant, organist Hans Davidsson, and voice professors Katherine Ciesinski and Kathryn Cowdrick, have recently joined with University of Rochester scientists for projects and presentations.

Among the 200 participants in this month’s symposium are such notable scholars as Ani Patel, current SMPC president and author of Music, Language, and the Brain, who will give the opening address; Dan Levitin of McGill University, author of the best-selling This is Your Brain on Music; and Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard Medical School, who helps stroke victims recover the use of speech through music.

In addition, several Eastman School of Music graduate students will give presentations. According to Marvin, whose own research is in the study of absolute pitch, there has been a great upsurge of interest in music perception study among students at Eastman and at the University’s River Campus. Her own University course, “Music and the Mind,” has grown from 24 students in its initial year to nearly 100.

Marvin describes the individual papers, which will be presented under such thematic headings as Evolution, Emotion, Cross-cultural Studies, and Music and Language, as “wildly diverse and fascinating.” The public is invited to hear the individual presentations and two poster sessions, although there is a registration fee to register for the academic conference. Presentation abstracts and information on events and registration are available at www.esm.rochester.edu/smpc2011/.

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