Monday, June 20, 2016

Our Musical Brain

An early summer night in Koerner Hall, listening and watching an outstanding trio, interspersed with informal lectures about music's powerful effects on the brain.

Everything that night seemed touched by grace - the building's architecture, the light flooding the lobby, the green-green of Philosopher's Walk just out the windows, the music, the smiles of strangers, Rob's company.

from Musical Toronto:

Music Illuminates Human Consciousness At Koerner Hall

By Robin Roger on 

Our Musical Brain: An Evening of Science and Music with The Gryphon Trio and mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah.

Many prominent scientists have had a strong affinity with music.  Einstein claimed that his greatest joy in life was music, and his wife reported that he would strike chords on the piano as part of his brainstorming process.  (Though his primary instrument was the violin).  What made these two fields complementary for him seemed to be the feeling of awe that each inspired.  “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.” Einstein observed.
Einstein confined his love of music to his recreational life, playing such works as Mozart’s violin sonata in B flat in amateur chamber music events and hosting musical gatherings in his home.  Two Canadian scientists who were professionally trained as musicians and then found ways to integrate music into their research lives presented highlights from their work to a packed house at Koerner Hall on Thursday, at Our Musical Brain, An Evening of Science and Music, a celebration of the launch of the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind and Consciousness at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.  Just before the presentation, it was announced that the Azrieli Foundation is gifting this program with $5 million.
Laurel Trainor, who is the principal flute of Symphony Hamilton and the CIFAR Senior Fellow, Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness (McMaster  University), studies perception, cognition and neuroscience of music.  Robert Zatorre, CIFAR Senior Fellow, Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness (McGill University), is a cognitive neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute, who was originally trained as an organist.  Dividing the evening, they each presented brief highlights of their research, demonstrating their findings with performances by The Gryphon Trio and mezzo-sopranoJulie Nesrallah, the host of CBC Radio 2’s classical music program, Tempo.
For music lovers, it was a chance to hear music that was chosen to illustrate a scientific point rather than to meet popular programming demands, including excerpts from two compositions by Astor Piazzolla and for science buffs it was a chance to look at charts, graphs and brain images plus clips of musicians being scanned and monitored while playing their instruments, including  one of  a cellist being inserted into the middle of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scanner with a cello designed to fit inside the scanner with her.
The Gryphon Trio gave stellar performances of entire movements including the Lento maestoso — Allegro quasi doppio movimento from the Dvorak Piano Trio in E Minor, Op 90 and the Allegro moderato from Beethoven’s Archduke Piano Trio, and also served as gracious guinea pigs as they demonstrated short musical experiments such as playing a phrase with an error performed on the beat and then the same phrase with an error performed off the beat, or playing half of a well-known tune so that the audience could then silently imagine the rest of the tune and indicate to the presenter when they imagined the tune was over.
As the evening was designed as a celebration for a wide spectrum of donors and supporters, the research was necessarily condensed and slightly popularised, which meant removing more critical nuances of the study design and results from the presentations.
A video showing 14 month old babies being bounced in snugglies worn by researchers who could hear a particular beat in their earphones followed by the same baby being placed in a situation where his or her cooperation was observed was intended to demonstrate the fact that shared listening to music with a synchronized experience of the beat, promotes pro-social behavior.  It raised many questions about confounding factors such as the different developmental stages of the different babies, the musical environments of their early life, the in-utero exposure to music (as we know that babies can hear music in utero), and the presence or absence of secure attachment of the baby to his or her caregiver.  The fact that there were no caregivers present in the video clips was also puzzling and of mild concern to me, though I’m sure the material was not presented to raise such questions, but only edited to show the highlights of the study.  Still, I am always happy when science demonstrates the benefits of music, providing evidence that music deserves funding and bolstering the point that music should be part of every stage of life, starting with conception.
Other aspects of music touched upon included the central place of rhythm in allowing humans to predict, which is critical to being prepared and contributes to survival, and the shared neurobiology of pleasure of food, sex, drugs and music, all of which recruit dopamine in the brain’s reward system.
Though possibly unintended, the evening suggested another important area of investigation, the link between music and humour.  There were many witty and amusing moments during the event.  The video clip of pianist Jimmie Parker studded with data monitors on several parts of his face, so he looked like he’d been at a piercing parlour, then asked to smile and look surprised brought images of the Maori Haka war dance to mind.
Robert Zatorre showed he could improvise when the audience feedback regarding which phrase of the music of a set of three was the most pleasurable produced confounding results, by suggesting that some of us should consider coming into the lab for further study.  And the evening began with the incident that occurs so frequently at public presentations that it deserves its own grants and studies: the technology failed.  In this case, Julie Nasrallah’s headset microphone was not working during her introduction, which she didn’t realise until she was surprised by the offer of a hand-held microphone.
It’s nice to know that however capricious the technology of our concert halls may be, the piano, violin and cello will always work.

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