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March 14, 2009, 2:30 PM

Dancing on the Ceiling: Music and the Brain

Participants: Jim Anderson, Taoufiq Ben Amor, Jane Ira Bloom, Josh McDermott, Alexander Stein

"Music is among the defining features of human culture, playing a central role in every society known to Western scholars. However, from the standpoint of evolution, music is also one of the most mysterious of human behaviors, as it serves no obvious function that might have driven its evolution."
-Josh McDermott, M. Hauser

Advances in neuroscientific techniques, such as fMRI, have enabled researchers to better understand the parts of the brain that are involved in thought processes, in particular those related to the emotions released by creative and esthetic acitivities. This roundtable will explore music in relation to brain function in an effort to understand the evolution of music and its possible role as a precursor to language. The panel will address a number of related questions: how music communicates feeling and why the emotions it generates make us feel so good; why we like some music and not other music; why some music is inextricably connected to physical body movement; how music can induce meditative states of consciousness; what relationships exist between the perception of music and language in the mind; and what musicians can tell us about their state of mind when they perform, compose, or improvise. Four professionals from different disciplines—a neuroscientist, a psychoanalyst, an Arabic musician and scholar, a sound engineer, and a jazz saxophonist/composer—come together to talk about these questions and more.

Jim Anderson is an internationally recognized recording engineer and producer of acoustic music for the recording, radio, television, and film industries. His recordings have received nine Grammy awards and 25 Grammy nominations. His radio recordings have received two George Foster Peabody Awards and he has received two Emmy nominations for television programs. A graduate of the Duquesne University School of Music in Pittsburgh PA, Jim studied audio engineering at the Eastman School of Music and Sender Freies Berlin. In the 1970s, he was employed by National Public Radio and engineered and produced many award-winning classical, jazz, documentary, and news programs. Since 1980 Jim has had a career as an independent audio engineer and producer. He has been a lecturer and master-class guest faculty member at the Berklee College of Music, The New England Institute of Art, McGill University, The Banff Centre, Universite de Kunst in Berlin, University of Luleå in Sweden, the New School University, University of Georgia, and Penn State University. He is a professor and former chair of the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He is the President of the Audio Engineering Society, 2008-2009.

Taoufiq Ben Amor was born in Tunis to a Sufi Family of the Qadiri order. With a musician father, he learned percussion and singing at a young age. Two decades ago, he started learning the Oud and the Arabic Maqam system with Mohammed Labbad, Jamal Aslan, Simon Shaheen and the Rashidiyya School of Andalusian music. He is an active music performer, educator and producer. Taoufiq Ben Amor is currently Senior lecturer in Arabic Studies at Columbia University. Some of his topics of research include, "Beur Rap in Paris: Language and Identity among young French-Maghrebian musicians;" "The Making of Tradition: Standardization of the Lyrics of the Tunisian Andalusian Malouf;" "The Politics of Language: Formalization of the Iraqi Maqam 1960-Present;" "Code-switching in Rai Music;" "Turning Point: Tarab as a Doorway to the Sufi Experience of the Divine;" and "Standardization and Colloquialization in Andalusian and Maghrebian Music Genres."

Jane Ira Bloom is a soprano saxophonist, composer, and a pioneer in the use of live electronics and movement in jazz. She is the winner of the 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition, the 2007 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for lifetime service to jazz, the Jazz Journalists Association Award and the Downbeat International Critics Poll for soprano saxophone, and the Charlie Parker Fellowship for jazz innovation. Bloom was the first musician commissioned by the NASA Art Program and has an asteroid named in her honor by the International Astronomical Union. She has received numerous commissions and has composed for the American Composers Orchestra, the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, the Pilobolus Dance Theater integrating jazz performers in new settings. She has recorded and produced 13 albums of her music and holds degrees from Yale University and the Yale School of Music. Bloom is currently on the faculty of the New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music in NYC. Her latest release is the award-winning CD, Mental Weather.

Josh McDermott recently joined the Center for Neural Science at NYU as a postdoctoral researcher. He studies sound and hearing, conducting experiments on humans and designing computational audio algorithms. He has longstanding research interests in music perception and cognition. Earlier in life he spent his free time DJing in clubs and on the radio, and to this day remains an avid collector of vinyl records. His scientific interests in music focus on understanding how musical structures are represented in the auditory system, and on what this can reveal about the origins of music.

Alexander Stein conducts a polymodal career as psychoanalyst, business consultant, author, journalist, teacher, and scholar. He is a member, training analyst, and supervisor of NPAP, and maintains clinical and business consulting practices in New York. A Principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a psychoanalytic consulting partnership, he advises business leaders and entrepreneurs. He also writes a monthly column for Fortune Small Business on the psychological dimensions of business and entrepreneurship. Drawing on his pre-psychoanalytic life as a conservatory-trained pianist, Stein writes and lectures extensively on the conjoined study of music and psychoanalysis. He is the author of numerous scholarly works that have been published in many of the leading peer-reviewed psychoanalytic journals, and is the author, most recently, of The Sound of Memory, which explores the formative influences of the early sound environment on psychological development. He recently delivered the Aaron Esman/Richardson History of Psychiatry Research Seminar Lecture on Music at Weill Cornell Medical College, and is organizing a weekend conference entitled "Singing (and Writing) with Tongues of Wood" for New Directions in Psychoanalytic Thinking in Washington DC.


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