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Lisa Gabel, assistant professor of psychology, and Jennifer Kelly, assistant professor of music, will combine their expertise

In response to mounting scientific research that indicates music training benefits the brain, the College will offer a new interdisciplinary course, Neuroscience of Music. Lisa Gabel, assistant professor of psychology, and Jennifer Kelly, assistant professor of music, are collaborating on the course’s creation and will share teaching duties in fall 2011. The course is funded in part by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“Lafayette is one of a handful of schools that recognizes the connection between the arts and sciences,” says Kelly. “I am fascinated by the new developments in brain research and the correlation to musical patterns, creativity, memory, and kinesthetic connection. The burgeoning field of music therapy directly results from this developing brain/music research.”

Kelly and Gabel have always been interested in each other’s work and say this is a great opportunity to combine their specialties. They plan on visiting other institutions with similar, successfully implemented courses, such as MIT, Harvard, and University of Michigan.

The course will take a multidisciplinary approach to studying the neural systems governing music perception, performance, listening, and cognition. The disciplines go hand in hand, as music can be a tool to study motor skills, learning, memory, and emotion, and neuroscience provides a way of studying the desire and power of music in humanity given that every culture has its own music.

The course will begin with a basic foundation in functional neuroanatomy, auditory neurophysiology, psychoacoustics, cognitive psychology, and music. Seminars throughout the semester will feature pitch perception, emotion in music, memory, experiencing music through nuance of movement, and music therapy. Plans are in the works for students to attend performances and laboratory experiences outside the College.

Gabel, who is working with two students to study how music affects the brain and neural plasticity (strengthening, weakening, or adding neural connections), expects to learn as much from the course as her students.

“Whenever you work on something that’s not directly related to the research you’re doing, you learn,” she says. “I’ve already learned a great deal from my students on how music affects the brain. I’m not a musician; one of the great things about academia is that every day you learn something new.”

Kelly agrees and plans on taking what she learns from the experience back to her music students.

“As a teacher of ensemble, I explore kinesthetic connection, patterns associated with memory, and musical expressions,” she says. “As I develop a more sophisticated understanding of how and why those connections occur in the brain, I bring that understanding into my classroom with newly developed exercises and means of learning.”

The course will provide exciting teaching challenges, and both professors are committed to helping their students develop new and sophisticated ideas.

“I hope the neuroscience students will notice more about how our environment, which may have seemed benign before, has an impact on neural plasticity,” says Gabel. “Music students will see how their particular passion has an effect on the brain and behavior in ways they may not have realized before.”

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