Science of music comes alive at 2015 Society of Music Perception and Cognition Conference

“Sawing on the Strings” performing at Kickoff.

Musicians and scientists connected in Music City USA at the 2015 biennial meeting of the Society of Music Perception and Cognition (SMPC) Conference and the Vanderbilt Music and Mind Kickoff. Music researchers from around the globe flew into Nashville Aug. 1-5 to attend the biennial conference.

“When the Society announced its search for a conference host in 2013, I first thought, ‘That will be a lucky campus that gets to host the next SMPC conference.’ Then I did a double-take and thought, ‘Hey, this could be us!’” said Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Otolaryngology and SMPC Conference co-chair with Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., VKC director, Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair, and professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Pediatrics.

“During the bid process, Elisabeth and I and the initial committee members formulated a vision for the conference and how we could best integrate our burgeoning music-related research programs at Vanderbilt into the conference,” Gordon said. “The mission of the SMPC conference, and of the Society itself, involves promoting and sharing new music perception and cognition research from a variety of disciplines, as well as facilitating cooperation among scholars conducting this research.”

Music and the science of music was showcased for the community at the Vanderbilt Music and Mind Kickoff to SMPC, held at Ingram Hall in the Blair School of Music. The Kickoff included live music, “lightning” talks about music-related research at Vanderbilt, dedicated networking time, and a keynote address by TED Talk contributor Charles Limb.

“There is an enormous amount of work at the intersection of music, science, and society,” said Mark Wallace, during his opening remarks at the Kickoff. “It’s a true labor of love connecting to our neighbors in Music City, finding common ground.” Wallace, Ph.D., is Louise B. McGavock Chair; professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences, Psychiatry, and Psychology; director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute; and VKC investigator.

“The Neuroscience of Musical Creativity” was the focus of the Kickoff keynote by Charles Limb, M.D., who addressed what happens in musicians’ brains when they are improvising and creating music. Limb conducts research on auditory science, clinical treatment of hearing loss, and complex sound perception, especially music. He is the Francis A. Sooy Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and the chief of the Division of Otology, Neurotology, and Skull Base Surgery at University of California San Francisco.

Performing a set was the duo So We Are. Neuroscientist and New York University Neuroscience and Psychology professor Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., and Irish singer-songwriter Colin Dempsey write and perform songs about love and life, with some lyrics based on the mind, brain, and mental disorders.The duo has written and recorded with musician Roseanne Cash, who described So We Are as “a postmodern Everly Brothers.” LeDoux and Dempsey performed songs with titles such as “My Mind’s Eye,” “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” and “Mind over Matter.”

“Music is an enhancement tool in our lives,” Roland Eavey said as he introduced the Spotlight on Vanderbilt Research lightning talks, giving the familiar tune we all sing when we recite the alphabet as an example. “Music is a special form of allowing us to have unique behavior.” Eavey, M.D., S.M., is professor and chair of Otolaryngology and director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences.

The lightning talks covered an array of Vanderbilt departments, which Eavey characterized as “individual fibers weaving into one fabric.” Lightning talk presenters each spoke 4 minutes on their music-related research. Presentations by VKC researchers were:

    • “Music perception for cochlear implant recipients” — René Gifford, Ph.D., associate professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences
    • “Musicality and Williams syndrome” — Miriam Lense, Ph.D., VKC Williams Syndrome Lab
    • “Making SENSE of autism with musical theatre” — Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Psychology
    • “Music, reward, and dopamine” — David Zald, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry
    • “Not just hearing – Music as a multisensory experience” — Mark Wallace, Ph.D., professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences, Psychology, and Psychiatry, and Vanderbilt Brain Institute director
    • “Seeing in tune: Hearing influences awareness of visual melody” — Randolph Blake, Ph.D., Centennial Professor of Psychology
    • “How do we map conducting gestures onto the sound we make?” — Emelyne Bingham, senior lecturer, Blair School of Music, with Ph.D. candidate Aysu Erdemir
    • “Rhythm and language in children” — Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Otolaryngology

The audience also was entertained by Sawing on the Strings, a group of young violinists, who included Giri and Uma Peters, Beth Davis, and Zak Sohrabi, led by instructor Deanie Richardson.

The SMPC Conference continued through Aug. 5 at Scarritt Bennett Center, with breakouts, poster sessions, and additional talks. “Shaping Time: Properties and Functions” was the keynote address by Jeanne Bamberger, Ph.D., professor emerita of Music and Urban Education, Music and Theater Arts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A second keynote was “Music Resonates with Communication Sciences and Disorders” by Margaret Rogers, Ph.D., of the American Speech Hearing-Language Association.

“We are thrilled that the conference coincided with the launch of our cross-campus interdisciplinary Program for Music, Mind and Society at Vanderbilt, funded by the Chancellor’s initiative for trans-institutional programs,” Gordon said. “It provides new infrastructure to support the music-related research of over 3 dozen Vanderbilt scholars from across campus. Our ongoing and new research activities are enhanced and facilitated by knowledge gained at the conference and collaborations formed during the whole SMPC 2015 conference process. I believe that new connections forged during the conference among Vanderbilt investigators, and between our scientists and the outside Music Cognition community, are an important factor in helping initiate many new projects at Vanderbilt.”

Eavey is lead organizer and principal investigator of the Program for Music, Mind, and Society at Vanderbilt, which includes faculty in the School of Medicine, Peabody College, the College of Arts and Science, the School of Engineering, and the Blair School of Music.

In addition to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, other Vanderbilt sponsors of the SMPC 2015 Conference were the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, the Ploger Method at the Blair School of Music, and the Program in Music, Mind and Society at Vanderbilt.

Elizabeth Turner is VKC communications coordinator.

Pictured top of page: “Sawing on the Strings” performing at Kickoff. Photo by Vanderbilt University/Steve Green.

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