Musician-Scientists and Scientist-Musicians: A Profile

Steven Rourke


March 02, 2018

The study of music and the brain is one of the most exciting areas in science, involving a growing number of researchers and centers across the world dedicated to understanding how we experience, process, and appreciate music. In the following highlights, we delve into the scientific pursuits of neurologists who are also professionally trained musicians, before shining light on renowned musicians whose eclectic scientific interests have also helped move knowledge forward.

Music's Clinical Applications, With Dr Peter Vuust (Bassist, Composer)

Dr Peter Vuust is a neuroscientist who focuses on the emotional impact of music, neuroplasticity, the clinical applications of music, and the organization of the brain.[1] He leads The Danish National Research Foundation's Center for Music In the Brain (MIB), an interdisciplinary center researching "the dual questions of how music is processed in the brain and how this can inform our understanding of fundamental principles behind brain functioning in general."[2]

Dr Vuust is also a world-class bassist, composer, and jazz musician who's participated in over 85 records and played with renowned jazz musicians, including the late guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Lars Jansson, and trumpeter Tim Hagans.[1] The Peter Vuust Quartet is a respected Danish jazz ensemble.

Following his studies in mathematics, French, and music, Vuust dedicated 10 years to his career as a professional musician. His interest in the polyrhythms in the music of Miles Davis drew him back to academics, leading to a PhD in neuroscience that examined the "overlap between neural substrates underlying processing of music and language, especially in musicians."[1]

As professor at the Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus, and associate professor at the Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience at Aarhus University, he is uniquely positioned to study the overlap between brain research and musical education.[3]

Play It Again, With Dr Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (Pianist)

Dr Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis's book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, which won the Society for Music Theory's Wallace Berry Award and The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ACAP) Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award, examines the repetitive nature of music in a cross-cultural and historical approach that's rooted in neurology, cognition, psychology, and music.[4]

Dr Margulis is professor and director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas where she uses neuroimaging, theoretical, and behavioral methodologies to explore the "interface between musical structure and engagement, especially in listeners without formal training."[5]

She conducts research on narrative perceptions of music,[5] involuntary musical imagery ("earworms"),[6]and how visual cues affect music appreciation,[7] and has published numerous articles at the intersection of music and the mind for a range of scholarly and wider-audience journals. She is in the process of writing The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press.[4]

Dr Margulis trained as a pianist at the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins (where she studied with Veda Kaplinsky) and obtained her PhD from Columbia University.[5]

Intuitive Musicality, With Dr Adam Ockelford (Pianist, Composer)

Adam Ockelford's "zygonic" theory of music understanding proposes that "imitation, which can occur in all domains of perceived sound and at all levels, is the ultimate organizing force in music."[8]

Dr Ockelford developed the theory as part of his doctorate in music program at Goldsmith's College in London.[9] He developed an interest in how people "intuitively make sense of music without the need for formal education" while working with children with special needs. He noticed that a number of these children also had remarkable musical abilities.[9]

Dr Ockelford is a professor of music and the director of the Applied Research Centre at University of Roehampton. His research focuses on "music psychology, education, theory and aesthetics—particularly special educational needs and the development of exceptional abilities; learning, memory and creativity; the cognition of musical structure and the construction of musical meaning."[9]

His book In the Key of Genius is a biography of musical savant Derek Paravicini. Together, they gave an immensely popular TED Talk.

Dr Ockelford is also a pianist and composer.

Focus on Rhythm and Parkinson's, With Dr Jessica Grahn (Pianist) 

The possible therapeutic benefits of music for patients with Parkinson disease is one of the research interests of Dr Jessica Grahn, whose studies show that music may facilitate movement in these patients by stimulating the basal ganglia.[10,11]

Dr Grahn is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Brain in Mind Institute at Western University in Canada, where she runs the Music and Neuroscience Lab. As well as the potential therapeutic benefits of musical rhythm, Dr Grahn studies how the brain processes musical rhythm and what explains rhythmical differences from one person to another. She also explores the link between music and movement, how the response to music in animals' brains differ from human responses, and the relationship between music and memory.[12]

Dr Grahn is also a trained pianist who obtained her BMus in piano performance and a BA in neuroscience from Northwestern University and her PhD ("Behavioral and Functional Imaging Studies of Rhythm Processing") from Cambridge University.

The Child's Brain on Music, With Dr Assal Habibi (Pianist)

Dr Assal Habibi is a classically trained pianist and piano teacher who researches child development, specifically how "early childhood learning experiences shape the development of cognitive, emotional and social abilities."[13]

She is also a research scientist at the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California where, among other projects, she is the lead investigator of a 5-year longitudinal study in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Youth Orchestra examining the "effects of early childhood music training on the development of brain function and structure as well as cognitive, emotional, and social development."[14]

Dr Habibi has studied how musical training affects the processing of pitch and rhythm in adult musicians and nonmusicians, as well as people with auditory impairments.[13] She has written in academic and popular media journals about how musical training affects childhood development.[15]

We Will Rock Your Radial Velocities, With Dr Brian May (Guitarist, Singer, Songwriter)

Ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time,[16] the iconic Brian May put his studies in astrophysics aside in the early 1970s for his musical career with Queen. An integral part of one of the most influential rock groups of all time, he wrote 22 of their top 20 hits, songs that include "The Show Must Go On," "I Want It All," and "We Will Rock You."[17]

May returned to Imperial College London to earn his PhD in 2007 ("A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud"), completing research that he began in 1970 on "that misty diffuse cone of light seen in the west after sunset and the east before sunrise." [18]

Dr May was named a science collaborator for NASA's New Horizons (The First Mission to the Pluto System and the Kuiper Belt) by mission principal investigator Alan Stern.[19] He is also an authority on 3D photography.[20]

Evolutionary Biology and Bad Religion, With Dr Greg Graffin (Singer, Songwriter)

Known as the "punk-rock professor," Greg Graffin, the lead singer-songwriter of Bad Religion—the punk-rock band with roots in the underground music scene in Los Angeles in the early 1980s[21]—is also an evolutionary biologist with a PhD in zoology from Cornell University who has taught life sciences at Cornell and UCLA.[22]

In a 2010 interview for Scientific American, he described the similarities between evolution and punk rock: "The idea with both is that you challenge authority, you challenge the dogma. It's a process of collective discovery. It's debate, it's experimentation, and it's verification of claims that might be false."[23]

Dr Graffin has written several books that examine science and religion, including Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World without God, which he co-wrote with science writer Steve Olson.

His most recent solo album, Millport—billed by Rolling Stone as "old-time music meets Seventies California country-rock"[24] —was released in 2017.

Dividing Bacteria and Electropop, With Mira Aroyo (Singer, Synthesizer Player)

The singer, synthesizer player, and one-time DPhil student in genetics Mira Aroyo is one of the four founding members of the British electropop group Ladytron. She was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and sings in English and Bulgarian.[25,26,27]

For the first 3 years of Ladytron's existence, Aroyo was a graduate student at Oxford University where she described her research as "how bacteria know when to divide ... in order to replicate, and make sure they have the right kind of genes in each new cell."[28] She is an author of several scholarly publications.[29]

Alongside five studio-produced albums, Ladytron has recorded numerous remixes, including tracks for Nine Inch Nails, Gang of Four, Christina Aguilera, Goldfrapp, Blondie, David Gahan, and Erasure.

In a 2009 interview, Brian Eno described Ladytron as "the best of English pop music ... with a full awareness of what's happening musically."[30]

Your Brain on Rhythm, With Mickey Hart (Percussionist, Musicologist)

"Underneath the world's extraordinary musical diversity is another, deeper realm ... an almost organic compulsion to translate the emotional fact of being alive into sound, into rhythm, into something you can dance to."[31]

Renowned percussionist, recipient of multiple Grammy awards, and member of the legendary Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart is also a respected scholar of percussion and rhythm whose eclectic, multidisciplinary research interests are as defining as his musical career.

In collaboration with the neuroscientist Dr Adam Gazzaley at UCSF, Hart has explored how his brain responds to rhythm, with the goal of identifying the ways that rhythm can stimulate diseased or damaged sections of the brain.[31,32,33] He has presented his expertise on the healing power of music and the potential for rhythm and music therapy to the US Senate Special Committee on Aging.[31]

Hart's other scientific explorations include collaborations with astrophysicists and NASA to record cosmic vibrations, which led to his recording Mysterium Tremendum in 2012.[31,34]

Musical Therapy, With Peter Gabriel (Singer, Songwriter)

"We as a species have long had an intuitive understanding that music has physical benefits, but now the science exists to back this up."[35]

Peter Gabriel, who rose to fame with Genesis and whose solo career has spanned decades, has led a unique musical career, notable for diverse interests that extend from "world music" to the therapeutic potential of music.

Gabriel is an advisor to the Sync Project, a collaboration between scientists and musicians on "studies to measure how the structural properties of music—like beat, key and timbre—impact biometrics such as heart rate, brain activity and sleep patterns," with the goal of creating "personalized music therapeutics."[35]

Like the bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers,[36,37] Gabriel has explored musicality with primates.[38] He has also been involved with the Interspecies Internet Project, which aims to use technology to showcase cognitive abilities across species, including plans to teach chimps to use Skype.[39,40]


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