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Published on April 2nd, 2014 | by BU News

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Conference considers music as medicine

BU: A dual focus on neuroscience and tuba performance led junior Kameron Clayton to organize an event about music’s power to heal.

Titled “The 2014 Boston University Music and the Brain Symposium,” the event brings together some of the world’s leading neuroscientists studying music and its interaction with the brain.

The son of a middle school science teacher, Clayton’s immersion in scientific inquiry started early. He also started singing in the church choir as a boy and by fifth grade had started playing the euphonium, then fell for the tuba.

“I loved everything about it,” says Clayton. “It was a chance to be the foundation of the school’s wind ensemble and symphony.”

At the same time, he picked up Oliver Sacks’ best-selling Musicophilia, which chronicles the powerful ways music has affected people with certain medical conditions. It was a eureka moment for Clayton—the first time he realized that his two interests informed each other.

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When it came time to apply to colleges, Clayton knew he wanted to major in both music (his focus is tuba performance) and neuroscience.

“Music in human culture is a great mystery,” he says. “It elicits deep emotions; it has the power to change one’s mood. After traumatic head injuries or a stroke, people can learn how to sing before learning to speak. Even someone with an abnormal gait can learn to walk again to the rhythm of music. What really interests me is, how does all this happen?”

Putting it together

Clayton says he got the idea for the recent symposium after attending several conferences last spring. One, at Berklee College of Music, “opened my eyes to how music could be used as a form of therapy,” he says.

He pitched the idea to his advisor and mentor, Paul Lipton, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of neuroscience and director of the undergraduate neuroscience program. Lipton was immediately intrigued.

“I thought, wow, that’s a great idea and a very big undertaking,” Lipton says. “I thought it was very ambitious and very timely.” He points to a number of recently published articles and books—including Musicophilia—as evidence of the growing attention to the connection between music and the brain in the last few years. “It’s something that’s entered the popular imagination.”

Identifying the speakers and performers for the symposium (the evening portion features a concert) was all Clayton’s doing. Lipton oversaw all of the organizational aspects and helped his student secure funding.

The goal of the symposium is to provide the lay of the land on the subject—what led each scientist into the field, where the science currently is, and where it’s going. Lipton predicts that the event will appeal to all manner of people.

“There will be folks who will be interested in the basic science,” he says, “and for others, it will better clarify what we mean by music and how we process it. Others might have very little interest in science, but it’s a chance to create some understanding of the relationship between music and the brain.”

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Big names

Clayton says three neuroscientists’ names kept popping up in his research: Gottfried Schlaug, director of the Music and Neuroimaging and Stroke Recovery Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School and a Harvard associate professor of neurology; Aniruddh Patel, a Tufts University associate professor of psychology, whose work focuses on music cognition; and Robert Zatorre, principal investigator at the Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute. All three agreed to participate.

“I tried to write really nice invitations,” Clayton says. In fact, the note he sent Zattore, a BU grad (’76) who had majored in music and psychology, struck a particularly responsive chord. Zattore told Clayton that his interests mirrored his own when he was a an undergrad.

Art and science

“This is exactly the kind of student initiative we want to help fund,” says Ty Furman, managing director of the BU Arts Initiative, one of the symposium’s sponsors.

“Kameron is facilitating an opportunity for the BU community to explore the connections between science and art without reducing the art simply to scientific components, but celebrating the beauty and mystery of art as well.”

In addition to studying for two degrees, Clayton practices the tuba 30 hours a week and is co-editor in chief of The Nerve, BU’s undergraduate neuroscience journal. He plans to take a year off after graduation to focus on the tuba before applying to PhD programs for music and the brain.

He hopes the symposium brings together all of the people at BU who have an interest in the field of music and neuroscience and that it leads to some exciting research. “I figure if all these people are brought together in the same room,” he says, “something could happen.”

via John O’Rourke/BU Today | Images by Piers Nye/Flickr, Cydney Scott/BU Photography, Dave Green/BU Photography


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