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A look at music in the brain at the LIBC public symposium

How does music affect a test subject’s brain? That was just one of the questions on the minds of the people who came to the LIBC public day to hear Rebecca Schaefer’s talk, as well as to hear from other top researchers about their investigations into music. The five woodwind players in the Calefax reed quintet may have stolen the show, but the Dutch Sign Language Choir stole audience members’ hearts.

Leiden neuropsychologist Schaefer organised a test performance in the Stadsgehoorzaal on 30 November, at which the audience could see brainwave frequencies displayed on a large screen. A stirring piece by Beethoven triggered a more significant result in the subject’s brainwaves than Satie’s tranquil music, which showed an almost entirely straight line. How often do you get a glimpse into how research is actually done? ‘We release as many triggers as possible in the brain,’ according to the clarinettist from the Calefax quintet.

A song stuck in your head

When Schaefer suggested that having a song ‘stuck in your head’ is a common experience, all the raised hands in the hall confirmed that assertion. Schaefer also illustrated how brain activity differs between actually experiencing music and imagining music in your mind. To demonstrate this, she carried out tests on visitors in the hall by interrupting and adding rhythms. ‘Rebecca is all about music, she’s the driving force behind the day,’ says fellow organiser Claartje Levelt. Schaefer invited a line-up of music cognition experts to join her for the event, which was opened by Councillor Marleen Damen. The LIBC public day is a collaboration between the Municipality of Leiden and the LUMC’s radiology department.

Finding more music

These leading academics are passionate ambassadors for research into music, and each of them has a unique perspective. Henkjan Honing discussed his search for the origin of musicality in both people and animals. The author of ‘Aap slaat maat’ (‘Monkey sets the beat’) was followed by American Psyche Loui who provided a talk about music and emotions. Anja Volk believes that search engines could help people find new music based on repetitions and patterns they’re already familiar with, for example using their playlists. Sonja Kotz researches the effect of music on exercise in people with Parkinson’s disease, and how music can even influence their cognitive ability. Music and speech was the topic of the final talk by the American researcher Aniruddh Patel, who showed that the English language has more swing to it than French, thanks to a greater variety in pitch.

Hands in the air for the sign language choir

‘Well-structured talks,’ is how visitor Kees van Putten looks back on the day. The methodology and statistics psychologist is enthusiastic about the way the speakers engaged the audience. There was time for audience questions after each talk. One person wondered how it comes about that a song in your head can really fit a situation, after a long search. Schaefer couldn’t say how that works, but she did confirm that our brains make a lot of associations. Sign language interpreters made the day accessible to everyone. ‘Music is for everyone; music is inclusive,’ said Schaefer, as the day ended with a performance by the Dutch Sign Language Choir. Instead of the usual applause, the audience gave the choir a standing ovation with everyone’s hands in the air.

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