How does the human brain learn to be musical?
Ohio Wesleyan University’s Richard Edwards, Ph.D., has been researching this topic for six years and, with the assistance of student Megan McConnell ’13, Edwards is reaching consistent conclusions about the factors involved with music learning. They presented the results of their research recently at an international conference in Scotland.
In June, Edwards, an assistant professor of music education, and McConnell traveled to Edinburgh for Neuroscience and Music IV: Learning and Memory, a conference sponsored by the Mariani Foundation that featured the world’s leading researchers presenting their latest studies about how the brain engages in musical processes.
Edwards and McConnell presented the results of their work in a poster titled “A Neuroscience Model of Music Learning.”
“Participating in this conference was an exciting process for both of us,” Edwards says. “We were able to meet with many of the researchers we’ve been studying over the past year and ask them about the latest discoveries they’ve made.
“The conference has sparked a lot of ideas for future applications we’d like to explore, such as the ways singing helps parents communicate with babies, the specialization of music learning among autistic children, or the benefits of melodic intonation therapy helping people with damage to language-processing areas regain their ability to speak normally,” Edwards says.
He notes this is the type of music therapy that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona is using to regain her ability to speak.
Edwards and McConnell review brain imaging studies involving music and enter summary information into the Musical Brain Imaging Research Database (MusicBird), a free online database for public use.
The implications for classroom applications are numerous. “When I teach music education methods courses, I’ve found that a lot of tried and true pedagogy is reinforced by a lot of neuromusical research,” Edwards says. “The pre-service teachers in my classes appreciate learning about the neuroscientific background of what’s happening in their brain or the brains of their students as music learning takes place.”
This project combines music and science interests for McConnell, a zoology major from Mentor, Ohio, who also plays the harp in the OWU Orchestra. Her work is funded through OWU’s StAP (Student Assistantship Program).
“I loved being able to personally connect with the researchers on, not only a musical level, but also on a neuroscience level, or whatever his/her field was (e.g., music performance, ophthalmology, education, etc.),” says McConnell. “It was inspiring to see how all the participants worked together regardless of their educational background. The two fields are very interesting to combine, and I hope our research will encourage more students to learn about this field.”
In addition to presenting at the international conference, Edwards and McConnell also gathered research information about the professional background diversity of neuromusical researchers attending the event. They plan to submit this study as an article for an undergraduate neuroscience journal, and apply for McConnell to present a poster at an undergraduate neuroscience conference in the fall.
Edwards says the Mariani Foundation is eager to learn the results of their conference-related research. “Not only is music a cultural constant throughout the world, but the variety of professions exploring how the brain engages in musical processes appears to be widespread, too. So far, we’ve collected over 100 survey responses from 21 countries around the world and various professions.”