Music Theory

Music Cognition Symposium


The Eastman/UR/Cornell/Buffalo Music Cognition Symposium is an informal gathering of people interested in music cognition. The symposium meets four times a year (twice in the fall and twice in the spring) on Saturday afternoons, usually at Eastman. The symposium receives funding from the University of Rochester’s Committee for Interdisciplinary Studies (UCIS).

Often, the symposium features invited guests—leading researchers in music cognition from around the United States and beyond. Symposia may also feature presentations of ongoing work by members of the community, and discussions of readings and topics in music cognition. Recent topics have included performance expression, probabilistic modeling, melodic expectation, and music-language connections.

Symposia are open to the public, and all are welcome. To be added to the symposium’s e-mail mailing list, contact David Temperley (

Music Cognition Symposia, 2017-18

Saturday, September 30, 2017
Guest speaker: Sean Hutchins, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto
Ciminelli Lounge (Eastman Student Living Center, 100 Gibbs St., Rochester), 2:00-5:00 p.m.

Saturday, November 18, 2017
Lexical and Musical Tone
Guest speakers: Laura McPherson (Dartmouth College) and Gavin Bidelman (University of Memphis)
Howard Hanson Hall, Eastman School of Music (4th floor of main building), 2:00-5:00 p.m.

Spring symposia – TBA

Music Cognition Symposium Steering Committee

  • University of Rochester: Elizabeth West Marvin and David Temperley (Eastman), Joyce McDonough (Linguistics), Anne Luebke (Biomedical Engineering), Zhiyao Duan (Electrical and Computational Engineering)
  • Cornell University: Carol Krumhansl
  • University at Buffalo: Peter Pfordresher

Visiting speakers to the music cognition symposium from past years

Roger Chaffin
Elaine Chew
Sarah Creel
Roger Dannenberg
Steven Demorest
Mary Farbood
Sid Fels
Jessica Graun
Peter Gregersen
Andrea Halpern
Erin Hannon
David Huron
Petr Janata
Ed Large
Steve Larson
Fred Lerdahl
Dan Levitin
Charles Limb
Justin London
Psyche Loui
Elizabeth Margulis
Steve McAdams
Devin McAuley
Josh McDermott
Ken’ichi Miyazaki
Rosemary Mountain
Eugene Narmour
Jean-Jacques Nattiez
Caroline Palmer
Bryan Pardo

Ani Patel
Isabelle Peretz
Dirk-Jan Povel
Bruno Repp
Jean-Claude Risset
Frank Russo
Gottfried Schlaug
Mark Schmuckler
John Sloboda
Michael Thaut
Barbara Tillman
Laurel Trainor
Sandra Trehub
Victoria Williamson
Robert Zatorre


Sean Hutchins (Sept. 30)

Dr. Sean Hutchins is the Director of Research for The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He founded and currently leads The Royal Conservatory’s Research Centre, focusing on experimental studies of music neuroscience and performance. He received his PhD from McGill University in 2008, and is trained in experimental psychology and neuroscience, with a specialization in the field of music cognition. Dr. Hutchins has held positions at l’Université de Montréal and the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto. Dr. Hutchins is an expert in the science of vocal perception and production; his research has studied the factors that affect basic singing ability and the relationship between speech and singing. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.

Dr. Hutchins will give two talks:

Music and Language Production

Music and language share many similarities, in form, in goals, and in usage. Given this overlap, it has long been supposed that musicians’ training transfers to improved linguistic ability. In this talk, I’ll discuss some of the behavioural and neurological evidence for music-to-language transfer, then hone in on an important piece of the puzzle that has been largely ignored: the role of production. This talk will describe some of my recent experiments investigating the transfer of production abilities with people of all ranges of musical ability and training, and discuss how this fits with current models of music and language transfer, and wider impacts of musical training.

Music Educators and Psychology

The psychology of music is a field that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decades; we now know much more about the musician’s mind and the factors that can affect (and be affected by) musical skill. However, one problem with any interdisciplinary field can be lack of communication. In this discussion, I will discuss my role as a scientist within a music conservatory, the challenges of effective communication across disciplines, and the ways that we attempt to integrate cognitive psychology into curriculum design. The session will include a general discussion on effective two-way communication with music educators, the most important areas in the field for an educator to know, and practical examples of successful integration of music education and psychology.

Lexical and Musical Tone (Nov. 18)

Howard Hanson Hall, Eastman School of Music (4th floor of main building), 2:00-5:00 p.m.

Visiting Speakers:
Laura McPherson, Department of Linguistics, Dartmouth College
Gavin Bidelman, School of Communication Sciences & Disorders, University of Memphis

2:00-2:15 General introduction
2:15-3:15 Laura McPherson, “The talking balafon of the Sambla”
3:15-3:30 Discussion

3:30-3:45 Break with refreshments

3:45-4:45 Gavin Bidelman, “The effects of music and tone-language experience on neuroplasticity, perceptual abilities, and cognitive transfer”
4:45-5:00 Discussion

Abstracts and Bios

“The Talking Balafon of the Sembla”
Laura McPherson, Darthmouth College

BIO. Dr. Laura McPherson is Assistant Professor in the Linguistics and Cognitive Science Program at Dartmouth College. Her theoretical research focuses on phonology (sound systems) and morphology (word formation), with a special focus on tone. She is also interested in how phonology can be adapted to or invoked in music. Most of her data come from primary fieldwork in West Africa (Mali and Burkina Faso), where she has been undertaking in-depth descriptive projects. Her first reference grammar, A Grammar of Tommo So, was published by De Gruyter Mouton in 2013. She is currently working on a grammar of Seeku (exonym Sembla/Sambla), a Mande language spoken in Burkina Faso. Current interests include the relationship between phrases and phonology, tonal features in Seeku, Tone-tune association in Tommo So folk music, and Seeku surrogate language in xylophone music.

ABSTRACT. A growing body of literature points to immense overlaps in structural and cognitive aspects of language and music. Blurring the boundary between these two modes of expression are musical surrogate languages, in which a fundamentally linguistic message is encoded and performed musically. This talk focuses on the case study of the Sembla balafon (resonator xylophone). The Sembla are a Mande ethnicity in Burkina Faso, whose language, Seenku, is spoken by about 17,000 people. Any important village event will be accompanied by traditional balafon music, in which musicians sing lyrics and communicate with spectators solely through their instruments. This balafon surrogate language is an “abridging system” (Stern 1957), encoding certain phonological aspects (tone, vowel length, and word structure) to the exclusion of others (segmental information). Even amongst the encoded aspects, we find a division between lexical/morphological and postlexical processes, with the latter only variably encoded in the surrogate language, suggesting that a separation between grammatical components is accessible to musicians in transposing speech to musical form. In this talk, I formalize the relationship between the phonology of the spoken language and the surrogate language, while also exploring the value of this tradition both in Sembla society and as a tool for language documentation.

“The effects of music and tone-language experience on neuroplasticity, perceptual abilities, and cognitive transfer”
Gavin Bidelman, University of Memphis

BIO. Dr. Gavin Bidelman directs the Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory located in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Memphis. The major goals of his research are to better understand neural basis of complex auditory perception and cognition (e.g., speech and music) and how they are changed with listening experience, hearing impairment, and age. The lab uses a multifaceted approach to understand human audition that includes a coordinated blend of techniques including neuroimaging (EEG/ERPs), psychoacoustics, and computational modeling. Current projects are focused on understanding the neurocomputations involved in generating basic psychoacoustic phenomena and during complex music/speech listening. Complementary work examines how different listening experiences and/or training (e.g., music lessons, bilingualism) influence an individual’s auditory skills and how these benefits might transfer to improve seemingly unrelated cognitive abilities.

ABSTRACT. Behavioral and neuroimaging evidence suggest that music and language are intimately coupled; experience/training in one domain influence cognitive processing in the other. While music-to-language transfer effects are well-documented, clear evidence of transfer in the complementary direction (i.e., language-to-music) has yet to be established. In this talk, I will provide evidence from my lab for a “bi-directionality” between music and tonal languages and highlight the perceptual and cognitive benefits of these two human experiences. Using a blend of perceptual, cognitive, and neuroimaging measures, we are investigating the similarities and differences between music and tone language expertise on brain function and how these two experiences positively transfer to impact one another. Our studies reveal that both musical training and language experience enhance auditory neural processing, perception, and certain cognitive abilities (e.g., working memory). We have found that while both experiences mutually benefit the neural extraction and subsequent perception of acoustic information, specific features of sound are highlighted in a listener’s brain activity depending on their perceptual salience and function within their domain of expertise.