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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