Friday, April 23, 2010

Notes on the musical brain

Student musicians performed in the class.

Symphony conductor Yoel Levi has memorized more than 2,500 musical scores. “It’s an astonishing skill,” says Paul Lennard, director of Emory’s neuroscience and behavioral biology (NBB) program. “A score can be the size of a small telephone book.”

Levi, principal conductor of the Orchestre National d’Ile de France, was among the guest lecturers in a seminar Lennard taught this spring, “The Musical Brain.” When he conducts, Levi told the students, his mind projects semi-transparent notes of the score over the members of the orchestra. He described it like the heads-up display that pilots use.

The course featured more than a dozen such distinguished guests from the world of music. Emory’s director of jazz studies Gary Motley described the mental process of letting himself go during musical improvisation. Richard Kogan, a concert pianist and psychiatrist, discussed correlations between mental illness and creative genius.

Conduct your own experiment:
See if listening to some Emory jazz, below, changes your mood.

“Music provides a window into cognition and the human condition,” says Lennard, who tied the personal stories of the guests to his own lectures on the neural basis of musical perception and performance. Emory's Center for Mind, Brain and Culture funded the class.

“It was cool to interact with so many renowned musicians, and to learn about the union between music and science,” says sophomore Jonathan Lin, a double major in NBB and music, who has played the violin for 10 years. “I want to be a scientist and a musician, which is one of the reasons I came to Emory.”

Darwin theorized that music may have preceded language in human evolution, an idea that remains under debate today. “It’s remarkable how music is involved in so many parts of the brain, and that there seems to be an almost underlying neural basis for why it’s important to human culture,” Lin says.

Wenxia Zhao, a senior chemistry major and music minor, began playing the violin when she was six years old. “We learned that the brains of musicians are different from those of non-musicians, if they start playing before the age of seven,” she says.
Violinist Ayke Agus told the class about her own experiences as a child prodigy.

Zhao, who is headed for medical school in the fall, especially appreciated a lecture by music therapist Cori Snyder. “She explained how some patients who can’t speak after a traumatic brain injury are able to sing words,” Zhao recalls. “I think that’s amazing.”

This is the second semester that Lennard has offered “The Musical Brain,” which combines his own professional and personal interests. His wife, Ceylia Arzewski, is a former concert master for the Atlanta Symphony and spoke to the class about motor memory and performance.

“I’m immersed in the world of musicians,” Lennard says. “I love music and I believe it is an important route into understanding the brain.”

Where music meets technology
Musician jazzes up space shuttle mission

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