Dallas — Although the Soluna: International Music and Arts Festival’s primary focus is orchestral and chamber music, on Saturday morning in Dallas City Performance Hall, a sizable crowd turned out despite the gorgeous spring day to hear three hours of lectures grouped around the topic Music and the Brain. Sponsored by University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, the lecture series promised an opportunity for scientists and musicians alike to channel their inner nerds for a morning.
For the most part, the lectures delivered. Dr. Mark Goldberg, Chair of Neurology at UT Southwestern, led off the morning by explaining the connection among all the lecturers: they would all raise questions about music, health, and brain disease.
Dr. Indre Viskontas, a cognitive neuroscientist and soprano at the San Fransisco Conservatory, led off with an extraordinarily compelling lecture entitled “Music That Moves: How Effective Performance Engages the Brain.” Viskontas addressed questions ranging from “Which came first: music or language?” to “Why do we love repetition in music?” Her talk was accessible and fascinating for non-specialists, and her musical performance of an aria from Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah was effectively integrated into the lecture.
Dr. Josef Parvizi, Associate Professor of Neurology at Stanford University, next talked about how his chance attendance at a Kronos Quartet concert led to his innovations in auditory mapping of brain waves in patients with seizures in a talk titled, “Hearing a Seizure’s Song: How Rhythms Drive the Brain in Health and Disease.” He pointed out that music and the other arts are necessary for scientists in part because they can spark invention and imagination, as in his own experience.
After a brief break, Professor of Psychology at the University of Montreal Dr. Isabelle Peretz shared some of the utterly transfixing results of research on music as a contributor to pro-social behavior, and also on research into congenital amusia, or tone-deafness. (Want to know if someone is tone deaf? Have the person sing “Happy Birthday,” then have that person sing the same “Happy Birthday” tune, substituting “la la la” for the words. A person who is truly tone deaf may be able to approximate the tune when singing the lyrics, but without the anchors provided by the lyrics, will not be able to even come close to the original melody.)
Last on the program was Dr. Richard Kogen, a psychiatrist and pianist. His lecture, “George Gershwin: A Life Saved by Music,” was more tangentially related to music and the brain—it was really more a lecture/recital with biographical information about George Gershwin, including his childhood behavioral difficulties and his death at age 38 from a brain tumor. Kogen is a skilled public speaker and a good pianist, but perhaps ill-advisedly performed both the piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and arrangements of “Sewanee” and three songs from Porgy and Bess. It was a lot at the end of the morning, although for the most part the audience seemed receptive.
Perhaps influenced by the popular TED Talks, contemporary audiences seem eager to hear these kinds of lectures. The four presenters each provided thought-provoking additions to our understanding of how music affects the mind, and how the mind affects music.