Media Releases

Students learn the science behind the song

February 14, 2012

TORONTO, ON – Everyone has a reaction to music, but the experience becomes much more rewarding when you can learn some of the science behind it.

A seminar called The Experience of Music gets first-year students assessing their feelings and behaviour when they listen to music in a variety of venues and contexts.

The course is taught by psychology Professor Emeritus Douglas Creelman and modelled on Daniel Levitin’s book This is Your Brain on Music: The science of a human obsession. Students discuss their personal experiences of music, while learning about the neurophysiology at work as well as the psychology of perception of music.

“I want them to get a richer sense of the ways they appreciate music,” says Creelman. “Music can be approached in different ways. This essentially emotional and experiential thing can be approached intellectually and systematically. I want them to be aware of the connection between their experience and the concepts in our readings and discussions.”

Field study is important to the course: students attend a concert and write a paper describing what they paid particular attention to at the event, whether that is how the musicians played, what was happening at the venue or what the music sounded like.

Creelman says he hears of a wide range of experiences from his students’ field studies.

“Toronto’s terrific because there are so many opportunities to go out there and listen to music. I encourage them to stretch themselves a little bit. An older student (who generally preferred the symphony) reported a rock concert she went to, and she said she almost even joined the mosh pit.”

One of the best things Creelman finds about the seminar is that the students come from many different types of backgrounds. They’re not only from different cultures, but some are working musicians. Others don’t know anything about music except that they love it.

“Our ability to make sense of music depends on experience, and on neural structures that can learn and modify themselves with each new song we hear, and with each new listening to an old song,” wrote Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music. “Our brains learn a kind of musical grammar that is specific to the music of our culture, just as we learn to speak the language of our culture.”

Besides the field studies, students are assessed through research papers, discussions based on music they bring to class and a group project. The Experience of Music is one of the small-group classes offered through the Faculty of Arts and Science First-Year Seminars (199Y) Program.

Yukiko Mihashi says she loves the small class size as she enjoys participating in the discussions and how Creelman can give each student the right amount of attention. As a psychology and neuroscience major, she finds the course to be right on target in terms of her interests.

“Sometimes philosophical questions about music come up in class, and it makes me get back into critical thinking,” she says. “I love thinking about stuff like that. Questions such as ‘what is music and what isn’t?’ gets me in mindsets that I don’t get to be in as much anymore as a life sciences student, and I love it.”


 For more information, please contact:

Jessica Lewis
Communications Assistant
Faculty of Arts & Science, University of Toronto