ABC’s Primetime recently profiled Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically injured by a gunshot wound to the head in January. In discussing her recovery from her traumatic brain injury, the news program addressed music’s role in Giffords’ recovery of language.
The congresswoman’s experience shows the potential for music therapy to be a powerful tool in treating neurological disorders, a concept that Jennifer Kelly, assistant professor of music, finds particularly intriguing.
“I am fascinated by the new developments in brain research and the correlation to musical patterns, creativity, memory, and kinesthetic connection. The burgeoning field of music therapy directly results from this developing brain/music research,” Kelly says.
She and Lisa Gabel, assistant professor of psychology, are team teaching a new interdisciplinary course that highlights these connections. “Music and the Brain: the Neuroscience of Music” explores topics such as how the brain processes music, how music affects the brain, and how music can be used as a therapy for neurological disorders including Parkinson’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, and stroke.
“In my personal experience, I have found ways to apply psychology to music and vice versa, but I wanted to learn more about the science behind these connections,” says Kara Enz ’13 (Milford, N.J.), a double major in psychology and music. “Going into the course, I was interested in learning about overlaps in both research and application of neuroscience and music. I was curious about how the brain interprets music but also how music could be used as a therapy,” Enz says.
Gabel and Kelly keep the students engaged with hands-on group activities to reinforce concepts. During one class session, they might take part in an improvisation exercise, using not only percussion instruments, but their bodies and the room itself—such as the floor, the blinds, and the chalkboard–to create music. In another, they might listen to a student presentation about how the brain responds to unexpected notes in a piece of music.
Kelly and Gabel also lead an in-class research experiment to study the influence of Mozart on spatial-temporal reasoning, the so-called “Mozart Effect.” Students then write research papers documenting the process and results.
Students are required to attend a concert at the Williams Center, and keep journals in which they reflect on an idea or respond to a question posed in class.
The final project for the class is a proposal presentation, done in pairs, for which students have to do background research and design a study to examine a topic of their choice within neuroscience and music.
Gabel and Kelly make a point of including very recent research in the class. They frequently discuss studies that came out only a few months, or even a few weeks, earlier.
“There are two things about the course that have really stood out to me: its interdisciplinary nature and how cutting-edge the field is,” says Ross Moretti ’12 (Freehold, N.J.), a chemistry major.
Neuorscience major Carly Ennis ’12 (South Salem, N.Y.) says she found it particularly interesting that music has an effect not only on mood and emotion, but on the actual anatomical structure of the brain.
“Musicians have been found to have a larger corpus callosum than non-musicians, which is the fibrous structure in the brain that allows the communication between the two hemispheres. This evidence suggests that playing and listening to music involves both sides of the brain, which is very intriguing,” Ennis says.
Kelly says that learning more about the science side of music has informed her teaching in other courses.
“As a teacher of ensemble, I explore kinesthetic connection, patterns associated with memory, and musical expression. As I develop a more sophisticated understanding of how and why those connections occur in the brain, I bring that understanding into my classroom with newly developed exercises and means of learning,” Kelly says.
Gabel says that the interdisciplinary nature of the course echoes what is happening in the research community.
“For at least the last decade anecdotal evidence has demonstrated that music training and therapy have had a positive influence on behavior and learning and memory, but it has only been more recently that scientists have begun to examine the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. From my perspective, the most powerful way to begin to understand this process is for researchers within these two disciplines to work together toward the common goal of understanding the interconnection between the humanities and natural sciences,” Gabel says.