Music surrounds us from infancy until our advanced years, from hearing our first lullaby, to dancing all night as teenagers, to having memories and emotions triggered by an old, favourite song. Learning to play a musical instrument requires highly specialist motor and auditory skills and their strict coordination in time, which can be extremely enjoyable and rewarding for both children and adults. Music can also be a powerful motivator for exercise, dancing, group activities, religious worship, romance and even shopping.
The complexities of musical experience will no doubt remain mysterious for many decades to come, but the field of cognitive neuroscience has begun to offer insights into how the brain processes music, and how music can affect the brain. Non-invasive brain imaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) let us monitor neural activity and blood flow in the brain while individuals listen to or perform musical stimuli. Such tools may enhance our understanding of musical expertise or emotional responses to music, and may provide new knowledge about the efficacy of different musical training paradigms, for example. Combined with other techniques (such as virtual acoustics and motion capture), these technologies allow psychologists and neuroscientists - but also performing musicians, music educators and music theorists - to ask new scientific questions about rehearsal and teaching strategies, performance techniques, audience responses, and many other areas of potential interest.
Musical Learning Across the Lifespan (MLAL) is based in the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University. The initiative makes links primarily with the Brain and Mind Institute, but also with faculty across Western University, including within the National Centre for Audiology. Since scientific, musicological and pedagogical approaches to the study of music are often disconnected, one aim of MLAL is to bridge these gaps via interdisciplinary, joint supervision of PhD and Masters student dissertations. By working across disciplinary boundaries, students will benefit from the expertise of faculty members and resources beyond their own academic background. Through retreats, research visits and a reading group, such research supervision also stimulates ideas and discussion amongst scholars.
The creation of MLAL was facilitated by Katie Overy, Visiting Professor from 2014 to 2015, at the invitation of Betty Anne Younker, Dean of the Don Wright Faculty of Music. Initial meetings and conversations with faculty across the Western campus - including Daniel Ansari, Carol Beynon, Jonathan De Souza, Jessica Grahn, Vladimir Hachinski, Ingrid Johnsrude, Ewan MacPhersan, Kevin Watson and Ruth Wright - revealed shared interests in the topic of musical learning and the brain, and support for interdisciplinary research collaborations and graduate dissertations. Visits to the launch events of the new LIVElab at nearby McMaster University inspired further ideas into experimental possibilities in this area.
With financial support from Research Western, the Don Wright Faculty of Music and a SSHRC Connection Grant led by Dr. Jonathan De Souza, the first MLAL interdisciplinary research retreat was held in October 2014, followed by further retreats, interdisciplinary pilot studies and now a public symposium, which officially launched the MLAL research group. Ongoing collaborations and future events will build on this opportunity to share expertise and facilities between the outstanding faculty, students and resources of the Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western’s world-leading Brain and Mind Institute, the National Centre for Audiology, the LIVElab at McMaster University and the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, University of Edinburgh.
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