September 3, 2015

New program set to explore effects of music on the mind

Vanderbilt University is seizing the opportunity to become a hub for music research in the heart of Music City.

Leading music cognition researchers gathered recently at Ingram Hall at the Blair School of Music for the biennial meeting of the Society of Music Perception and Cognition, sponsored in part by the Program for Music, Mind and Society at Vanderbilt. (photo by Steve Green)

Vanderbilt University is seizing the opportunity to become a hub for music research in the heart of Music City.

A cross-disciplinary team that includes five different schools or colleges at Vanderbilt was recently awarded $200,000 in Trans-Institutional Program (TIPs) funding over the next two years to create a new program to study the effects of music on the mind.

The Program for Music, Mind, and Society at Vanderbilt will harness the teaching and research resources of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, Peabody College, College of Arts and Science, School of Engineering and the Blair School of Music. It will become a centralized infrastructure to support current research about the science of music and inspire new cutting-edge research collaborations.

“There is no other university in the nation better poised with relationships of faculty talent, music interest and location to create such a special program,” said the program’s lead organizer and principal investigator, Ron Eavey, M.D., the Guy M. Maness Professor and chair of Otolaryngology and director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

Scientists know that music inspires people, changes their mood and affects their behavior. The program will allow them to delve deeper into the science behind that, including behavioral studies and neuroimaging, bringing together multiple disciplines, including Psychology, Neuroscience, Medicine, Education and Music Performance. The program is creating seminars, research discussion groups, online tools and outreach projects to facilitate these aims.

“We’re entering a new frontier of research on music and the mind,” said program investigator Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., the Annette Schaffer Eskind Professor and director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. “And where better can we do this than in Music City, USA and within a great research university? Music holds great promise as a therapeutic tool to treat a variety of brain disorders such as autism or language impairments. Music can also be a strength for individuals with developmental disorders, as it is in Williams syndrome. We have so much to discover.”

Mark Wallace, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute and another of the program’s investigators, added, “I have been deeply impressed with the response to this initiative from the Nashville music and arts community. It is clear that this is just the beginning of an extraordinary set of conversations and interactions.”

The TIPs program’s other investigators are Nicole Baganz, Ph.D., a research fellow in the Department of Pharmacology; Emelyne Bingham, M.M., senior lecturer in the Teaching of Music; Jay Clayton, Ph.D., director of the Curb Center at Vanderbilt; Philippe Fauchet, Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering; Reyna Gordon, Ph.D., research assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology; and Marianne Ploger, M.M., associate professor of Music Perception and Cognition.

Vanderbilt research has already shown links between music and grammar. Gordon was the lead author of a study on the subject that was published last year in the journal Developmental Science. Through a series of tests conducted with colleagues at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, she found that children who did well on music tests tended to also excel at grammar tests. The research could have multiple uses, such as taking rhythm into account when measuring grammar in children with language disorders.

Building on that research with the TIPs funding, Gordon will launch a pilot study to test the efficacy of music lessons for improving language skills in children with language impairment. Gordon wants to address this question: “If we can improve their rhythm skills through music lessons, will that help with their language skills?”

“Maybe we can also figure out the public policy implications of music lessons for language development in the schools, by studying the long-term costs and benefits, given that many schools have cut funding for music.”

This research will take place in tandem with her further study of the mechanisms underlying the connection between musical rhythm and grammar, funded by a new grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The program recently undertook its first major venture. Earlier this month, Vanderbilt hosted music cognition researchers from around the world at the five-day meeting of the Society for Music Cognition and Perception (SMPC). More information is available here.

The Music, Mind and Society program is one of 17 cross-disciplinary projects involving 153 faculty members from all 10 Vanderbilt colleges and schools that were selected for the initial set of awards from the new Trans-Institutional Program (TIPs) initiative. Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos launched the $50 million program in November 2014 to provide support over the next five years for cross-disciplinary research and collaboration — a core pillar of the Vanderbilt’s Academic Strategic Plan. The 17 projects were selected from 64 formal proposals received.

TIPs are cross-college initiatives involving partnerships that interweave diverse perspectives, features, methods and information to foster creativity in both discovery and learning. The funds for the first round of projects became available in July.