Reinvigorating the Mystery

It’s been almost four months since I capped my digital pen, clicked publish, and submitted the first four chapters of this project. Yet even at that moment I knew I’d be coming back to it at some point- there was more work to be done. My instructor, Ray McDaniel, echoed this view in the comments he wrote to me, and I wholeheartedly agreed with him. But due to an equal mixture of time constraints (mainly self-induced) and brain drain (largely a product of the former) at the end of my last semester when it was due, I had to leave it the way it was: unfinished. And in many ways, doing that was more relieving than nerve-wracking. Yes, the story was left too open ended, but it was authentic. I had given it all I had and honestly didn’t know how to neatly tie it together. Rather than fake an ending, I decided to let it be until I had the urge to return.

Since that time, I’ve done a lot of thinking about both music and life in general, and how to incorporate one into the other as I move forward. Quickly I reasoned that no matter what I do for a living, it’s not like I’ll be at risk of altogether parting with music- like the vast majority of people to whom music is important, it remains a component of their lives entirely separate from their occupation. And though the fact that music will always be there is comforting to some degree, I’m not ready to settle for that quite yet.

So where does that leave me? Well, it has prompted me to return to the conversations I had during this project. After all, they were with people who were musicians, but they were other things, too: teachers, scholars, writers, activists. Music was the substance that seeped into these other pursuits and bound them together. And I connected with these people because I too shared a multidisciplinary curiosity; I am am a musician, but also someone studying neuroscience and fascinated by language. I knew there was a place for music in these fields, too. My conversations with Dr. Hopkins, Dr. Stillman, and Mr. Abeo had outlined an approach to my continued relationship with music: to explore the fields with which it intersected and overlapped.

As it turns out, for last two years, and most notably a large portion of this past summer, I been involved in a project doing just that.

My junior year at the University of Michigan I became involved in a research project studying music cognition, a niche but eclectic field investigating both the psychological and neurological basis underlying how we perceive music. Our lab consists of myself, two other students, and two professors, one an expert in survey research and the other in sound engineering. Our project, informally titled, “Song People Love,” is the product of a mutual interest (and combined discretionary funds), and has been an exploratory attempt to answer questions regarding why people listen repeatedly to their favorite songs. Following months of questionnaire development, distribution, and analysis, we arrived at some interesting, if intuitive, findings.

One slide of our presentation, showing what aspects of songs brought listeners back to them.

One aspect of our study was asking participants to name their favorite song (and one that they listen to repeatedly). We separated these songs into three different affect categories (Happy/Energetic, Calm/Relaxing, and Bittersweet/Melancholy/Nostalgic). We then asked them to choose an aspect of the particular song that contributed most to them wanting to return to listen each time. We found that participants were more likely to return to songs they had rated as “Bittersweet, Melancholy, or Nostalgic” because of their “deepness of connection” to a song, while they were more likely to return to songs they rated as “Happy or Energetic” because of the “beat or rhythm.” Eager for some feedback on our work, we applied to present at the 2015 Society for Music Perception and Cognition (SMPC) Conference at Vanderbilt University. Fortunately, we were accepted, so earlier this month we flew down to Tennessee to give a talk to about thirty or forty other music cognition researchers from around the country.


SMPC was the first academic conference had ever attended, and it was fascinating to witness the sheer number of people so passionate and knowledgable about a field I had only read about. During the three days I was there, I attended sessions ranging on topics from modeling how neurons encode rhythms, to interpreting timing in music though children’s drawings, to determining how musical performances generate empathy. I also was fortunate enough to hear the director of the organization Music and Memory speak, the same organization about which the award-winning documentary “Alive Inside” was filmed.

Official trailer for the film “Alive Inside.”

I had seen this film a few months before, which documents the mission of a man to bring music to older adults isolated and unresponsive in nursing homes, and the power listening to childhood songs had in rejuvenating them, often prompting patients to speak for the first time in years. Seeing this had given new meaning to the work we were doing in our lab, and strengthened my resolve to continue learning from and connecting with people doing similar work.

The more sessions I attended at SMPC, the more I noted how many people who, like those I had interviewed, had made an academic career out of music, but were also trained and active musicians. Dr. Indre Viskontas, who gave the talk on empathy, is perhaps the most striking example: she is both an accomplished neuroscience researcher and professional operatic soprano. Anothe example is Dr. Joe LeDoux, who opened the conference with a performance by his band “The Amygdaloids.” In many other presentations, researchers specifically referenced their musical backgrounds as providing them special insights into their areas of study.

Backtracking a bit, I really first became aware, and subsequently interested, in music cognition research after reading the book of another professional musician turned academic, Dr. Daniel Levitin.


The book was the New York Times bestseller “This Is Your Brain On Music,” and since then Dr. Levitin has written more popular books and toured the world essentially popularizing this field. When I checked the conference schedule, I was understandably excited to see his name, but also crestfallen to realize that we were presenting at the exact same time. However, soon after, I received an email from the conference coordinators about a faculty-student meeting program that was to occur, and that Dr. Levitin was one of the participating professors. As it happens, I emailed them requesting a meeting, and a few messages and a couple weeks later, I was sitting across from the man himself, drinking coffee and chatting about music research.

Dr. Daniel Levitin. Source:

Though our conversation was brief, and in contrast to the interviews I’d conducted for this project, a conversation mainly focused on me, it left me with a lot to mull over. We talked about next steps for me as a new graduate, labs around the country to contact, and one of his current projects using a relatively esoteric neuroimaging technique (fNIRS) to study motor function. I also confessed that I’m still not completely committed to graduate school, but that I’d like to gain some experience working or volunteering in a lab before I decide whether to apply. Knowing that Dr. Levitin himself dropped out of college to play in bands and become a high-profile recording engineer for about a decade before returning to school, I wasn’t surprised when he encouraged this plan. I mentioned that in the meantime I’d also like to have the chance to make some more music. “Grad school will always be there,” he sad. And then with a smile, “Take some time, it worked for me.”

“I love music and I love science- why would I want to mix the two?”

Later that day, we presented our work and were pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback and genuine interest from students and faculty alike. That night at the conference banquet we discussed future directions our research could take with a group of PhD students, a few of which who were working with another prominent music cognition researcher, Dr. David Huron. Dr. Huron had happened to catch the tail end of our presentation that day, and we are now in correspondence with him about our project.

On the first page of “This Is Your Brain On Music,” Dr. Levitin opens with this question: “I love music and I love science- why would I want to mix the two?” He then quotes famed primatologist/biologist/neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:

“I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject, or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.”

This was a theme I heard resonate throughout sessions at SMPC, too. There seems to be a common concern that applying rigorous analysis to something as immaterial, and even transcendent, as music will ruin our appreciation of it. I understand the fears that arise here, but anyone who loves music and also loves to study it knows they are altogether unfounded. Art is analyzed everyday, and usually to the great benefit of those who already love it. Perhaps the strongest argument I can counter with is this: who analyzes art more than artists themselves? In the world of music, both players and creators scrutinize, tweak, and perfect the minutiae of sounds, textures, rhythms, and melodies, and most importantly how they fit together and are perceived. At the end of the day, this thorough study of an art many people consider sacred never comes close to taking away the pleasure we gain from it — if anything, it only heightens it.

Music has been of utmost important in my life thus far, and this has aroused a hunger to understand it more deeply. Each time I create it, it’s like a study in itself. Hypotheses are tested and new methods are tried. Many fail, but there are always small breakthroughs along the way. One can approach the study of music from endless directions, and I believe that just like listening preference and composition style, how one studies music should also reflect the unique passions of the individual. Some do this through performing, others through teaching, composing, reviewing, engineering, researching, or a combination of all of them. After all, when we allow a portion of ourselves into our work, no matter the medium, it becomes art, and there is deep, personal meaning in this. For me, this is a feeling I’ve come to know — when I can look up from my keyboard, guitar, or computer screen, breathe a sigh of satisfaction, and understand better the role of music in my life.

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