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The Colonel John W. Pershing Annual Military History Lecture, Wednesday, March 26, 4 p.m., SMG Auditorium

Week of 21 March 2003· Vol. VI, No. 25

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CFA seminars tune in to musicality

By Tim Stoddard

To music educators like Anthony Palmer, the phrase “practice makes perfect” is a dangerous mantra for the aspiring musician. Playing the right notes at the right time is certainly important, Palmer says, but too often, music teachers emphasize technical skills at the exclusion of artistic expression, something that is far more difficult to teach. “If a band or orchestra goes to a festival, there are adjudicators who can say, ‘Yes, this group plays in tune, and yes, it plays the music written on the score,’” says Palmer, a CFA adjunct professor of music education. “But it’s very difficult
to say whether the performance is musical. If it is, why is it musical?”

To begin to answer that question, Palmer and André de Quadros, director of CFA’s school of music, have launched a new music education seminar series in which researchers from outside BU address the deeper scientific and sociological issues of how humans process music and how it affects our culture. “The whole idea is to give greater depth and understanding to the human being’s role in music rather than approach it simply as a task to perform,” Palmer says. Since January, guest speakers have discussed such issues as how the study of music is pertinent to other subjects, and how music educators can learn from the way that young children interpret music.

André de Quadros Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


André de Quadros Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Pioneer in the forefront

In hosting this series, CFA continues to pioneer new methods in music education, says de Quadros, who is also chairman of the music education department. That tradition started in 1967, when CFA sponsored a seminal music education meeting at Tanglewood. “It was the first symposium that emphasized the relationship between music education and society,” he says, “and it completely changed music education all over the world.” In the coming years, de Quadros adds, CFA will sponsor a number of symposia and seminars to redefine BU’s historical role in music education. “Boston University has always been in the forefront of music education,” he says. “The seminars will help in our mission to make BU the leading institution in music education in the Northeast.”

De Quadros says that more and more music educators are now interested in what neuroscience can teach us about musicality. When sound waves from a radio speaker or concert hall enter our ears, they’re converted into electrical signals that our brains somehow recognize and make sense of. Musical appreciation and understanding emerge from somewhere within that mysterious neurological process. Delving into this topic on March 27, the distinguished neuroscientist Jamshed Bharucha will present a lecture entitled Music, Culture, and the Brain.

Bharucha, provost and vice president of Tufts University, has long been interested in why people from different cultures have a unique perception of their own music. An American born and raised on western pop music may not understand or enjoy a first listening to Indonesian gamelan or Arabic choral music. “It’s a compelling perceptual phenomenon,” Bharucha says, “and we see it even in highly trained musicians who have all the finely tuned listening skills.” While it seems obvious that foreign music sounds strange at first, Bharucha says that “it suggests that there’s been some sort of adaptation of the brain as a result of lifelong exposure to the music in that culture. Your brain actually internalizes those patterns and uses them to filter your perception so that you hear music through your own cultural lens.”

In his lecture, Bharucha will discuss his ongoing study comparing the brain responses of people from different cultures when they’re presented with familiar and foreign music. The study participants are mainly undergraduates who have grown up in India or the United States. Each student was placed in an MRI machine and presented with a variety of auditory stimuli, including excerpts of spoken Hindi and English, and passages of classical and pop music from Western Europe and India. The MRI brain images revealed that different areas of the American and Indian students’ brains became active in response to spoken languages. “For music, however, it’s much harder to discern a difference between the two groups,” Bharucha says. “But we have preliminary results that show different patterns of activation in the brain for the two forms of classical music.”

Music on the mind

Bharucha’s research has also revealed that music cognition is not localized to only one region of the brain as previously thought. Researchers have long known that the brain’s auditory cortex shows increased neural activity in response to ambient sounds. But last December, Bharucha and colleagues published a paper in Science showing that it’s really more complicated than that. When subjects listened closely for key changes in music samples, there was enhanced activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is believed to control such things as memory, emotion, and affect. Bharucha won’t go so far as to say that this explains why some songs trigger vivid memories, or why
we sometimes crave certain music, but he says it “is interesting because perceptually, musical key is something that’s more abstract than raw sound, and so it involves some integration of knowledge about the structure of western harmony, all of which has been internalized by the brain through a lifetime of exposure.”

That’s all well and good, but will listening to Mozart make you smarter? The much-hyped Mozart Effect claims that listening to the Viennese master’s music enhances spatial intelligence and short-term memory. It’s also been asserted that broadcasting Mozart’s string quartets into city squares pacifies pedestrians and deters drug dealers. But Bharucha says that the evidence pinning these claims to Mozart amounts to little more than pseudoscience. “As a music lover, I wish that I could say that listening to Mozart will do this for you,” he says. “But you can get people to have elevated performance on visual-spatial tasks from a variety of stimuli, including listening to stories read out loud. It suggests that these are part of a mood manipulation, or something that wasn’t specific to music and certainly not to Mozart.”

The consumer craze over Mozart CDs and books may seem benign and possibly even beneficial — what harm can come from a proliferation of great music? But Palmer feels that the marketing of Mozart as a brain-booster is detrimental to music education. “Music is usually the first part of the arts to go when funds are short,” he says. “So people are justifying music on the basis that it somehow makes us smarter. More often than not, music is used as a means to teach other subjects.” This philosophy misses the point, he says, which is that music is inherently valuable and ought to be recognized as such in our schools.

The beat of a different drum

For more information on CFA’s music education seminar series, visit www.bu.edu/cfa/music/departments/education/calendar/2002-2003.html.


21 March 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations