Bookbag: NEUROSCI 289: Music and the Brain

Writer: 
March 14, 2016

THE CATALYST: As vice provost for the arts at Duke, Scott Lindroth has an interest in finding points of intersection among engineering, natural sciences and social sciences, and the arts. A few years ago, he was invited to a Bass Connections group meeting for the Brain and Society, which set the stage for developing a new course around these disciplines. Lindroth, a composer, wanted to find a way to “explicitly bring the arts into the context of neuroscience.” Faculty within the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences attending the meeting shared his passion. The resulting partnership “wasn’t a forced marriage in any way,” he says. “Many colleagues in the natural sciences were and still are seriously engaged in music. Scientific research is motivated by wonderment, which is fundamentally an emotional connection with a question or puzzle. Musicians dedicate their lives to the creation of wonderment and emotional engagement through a sonic utterance.”

THE GIST: Lindroth and Tobias Overath, a research professor who studies auditory neuroscience, will explore how music affects the brain, how the brain distinguishes it from other sounds, and how we learn to create and perform music. Together, the neuroscientist and the musician will puzzle through how pitch is perceived, what elements generate feeling, even how melodies are remembered. “We are trying to get at the phenomenon of music from a cognitive perspective, neuroscientific perspective, and a music theory perspective,” says Overath.

ASSIGNMENT LIST: The course begins with interactive lectures and sound analysis projects and ends with students presenting a topic of choice, anything from self-designed experiments to musical performances to literature surveys. Along the way they’ll listen to compositions by composers ranging from Debussy and Mahler to Katy Perry and Jimi Hendrix.

THE TWIST: Both professors have a lifelong interest in music. Overath studied musicology as an undergraduate and has played the viola since the age of six. “Music is very meaningful to me,” he says. “To have a more scientific approach to how humans perceive music is very close to my heart.” Lindroth, who plays piano and has composed vocal and instrumental pieces for the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, says, “The class allows me to experience music from a very different lens and perspective, and my hope is to offer students different ways to experience a wide variety of music.”

WHAT YOU MISSED: Students are treated to performances and talks from distinguished artists and special guests, including violinist Jennifer Koh and electrical and computer engineering professor Blake Wilson B.S.E.E. ’74, who helped develop the cochlear implant, is a popular lecturer. “To hear the story of a woman who learned to sing again after having the implant is incredible,” says Lindroth. “Bringing in colleagues who can share their work and their own stories with students helps bring it home, rather than [the course] being something abstract. It’s quite powerful.”