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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

FEATURE | Sounds Of Science: Putting The Entertainment In Entrainment

By Robin Roger on May 5, 2016

Sounds of Science U of T Music Science Fair demonstrates cutting-edge scientific research to how we hear, feel, and think about music.

MusicBrain

Sounds of Science: Music, Technology and Medicine. Macmillan Theatre, University of Toronto Faculty of Music. May 3, 2016.

I’ve attended quite a range of events at the Macmillan Theatre and Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building, from opera to big band to orchestral programs to chamber music and piano recitals, to masterclasses in voice and piano. I’ve even played the piano on the stage of Walter Hall, as a part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival Community Academy last summer.

Whatever the event and its musical mood, each one included time spent waiting in the foyers, which are rather subdued, windowless spaces with a somewhat dampening effect.

But on May 3, the Macmillan Theatre lobby was transformed into a space that was electric with excitement, and felt like a cross between a Medieval Fair and a Poster session at an academic conference. Crowds were examining dozens of displays, many with interactive components, and the place was filled with the hubbub of voices talking over each other as people asked presenters questions about the results of studies that have been undertaken by collaborators in the fields of music, medicine, rehabilitation science, psychology, social work and more. The vastness of the scope of the research that the University is engaged in regarding the application of music to medicine became dramatically evident just by strolling through this stimulated throng. Not only highly informative and thought-provoking, but it was also a lot of fun.

At one booth, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Music, Midori Koga was demonstrating her team’s study of the use of the Nintendo Wii Balance Board to promote the development of awareness of core balance for the purpose of enhancing piano performance. Adults and children were lined up to take a turn standing on the board which showed them an image on a screen of how stable their core was. The premise of the research is that pianists can benefit from developing a strong core by understanding some of the principles of core balance that are central to pursuits such as Aikido.

At the Regent Park School of Music booth, kids were getting a kick out of touching a variety of plants, fruits and vegetables attached to wires which emitted rude sounds on contact. I amused myself by waving my hands above the Theremin, which was part of the display, very pleased to get a chance to try this intriguing instrument that is the focal point of Sean Michaels’ Giller-award winning novel, Us Conductors. There were presentations on the benefits of choral singing for people with Alzheimer’s, and the use of music to relieve pain in people suffering from Temporomandibular Joint Disorder, which can be an excruciating condition.

I wished I had an entire day to study these presentations and ask questions of the presenters who were enthusiastically and patiently explaining their findings. But this was just the brief preamble to the main event, an extensive program of presentations in the Macmillan Theatre itself.

As the lights went down in the overflowing Macmillan Theatre, the auditorium was filled with a soothing melodic sound that seemed to be a cross between cheerful crickets and water drops. This composition, called “Dripsody: An Etude for Variable Speed Recorder,” by physicist and inventor Hugh Le Caine was the perfect sonic transition from the hyper-stimulating poster fair to the focused attention needed for the program of fast-paced, smoothly presented, nearly glitch-free presentations by the collaborators in music and medicine that followed.

Whether from the Faculty of Music, or the Faculty of Medicine, these experts are all accustomed to presenting material, and some are also performers, so the calibre was high and polished. The overall, convincing message was that music has a verifiable application to a large variety of medical challenges, and can be an important contributor to effective cures and treatments, and in many cases, can lower health costs. For example, Jeff Wolpert, of the Faculty of Music, and David Alter, of the Faculty of Medicine, presented data that showed that cardiac rehabilitation patients who followed an exercise program done to music of their own selection had a much higher rate of meeting their targets than those who don’t have this personalized musical backup.

Given that maintaining the fitness rehab program is essential for post-cardiac patients, this is significant because it will reduce repeat episodes, and aside from prolonging life and enhancing the quality of life, it will reduce health care costs without running the risks of side effects that some other interventions, such as pharmaceuticals, can create.

It may be common knowledge that many people find exercising to music more motivating, but the evidence that listening to your own program (rather than one chosen by an instructor or coach) increases your chance of adherence to the lifelong demand of fitness discipline is especially important. Professor Lee Bartel referred to his method of normalising problematic brain rhythms with music in such conditions as Fibromyalgia, Alzheimers, and Depression as “audioceuticals”. If I had to choose between listening to rhythmic sound or ingesting a costly drug that may interact unfavourably with other medications, I’d be delighted with the first option.

Michael Thaut, Director of the Music and Health Research Collaboratory, showed videos of two individuals who initially walked with the halting gait of Parkinson’s disease and then achieved smooth, well-regulated walking after entrainment achieved with music. Oliver Sack’s description of re-learning to walk after breaking his leg by summoning memories of Mozart to provide a “kinetic melody” came to mind as I watched this.

While the main purpose of this program was to inform, the Faculty of Music doesn’t lose a chance to perform so there were several outstanding performances on the program. Soprano Sarah Forestieri gave an astounding demonstration of what vocal chords can do with her performance of “Ah! Tardai Tropo…O Luce I Quest’anima,” then presented herself for on-stage examination by Speech-Voice Pathologist Aaron Low, who inserted a scope down her throat which projected her vocal chords onto the screen behind them. Medical types like looking at internal body parts, so may have enjoyed watching Forestieri’s vocal chords open and close but for me, it was a bit lurid and overly intimate, especially as she was required to sit still and make “eeee” sounds while Low, who has a rather Mephistopholean goatee,  inserted his instrument.

I had the opposite reaction when violinist Linnea Thacker performed Bach’s “Sonata no 1 in G minor,” while her skeleton was seen in action on the screen behind her, offering an image as dance like and graceful as Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire, and I was equally entranced while listening to trumpeter Brad Eaton perform “Never Be Another You,” in front of a screen on which spectral analysis was displayed. This looked like a series of purple mountains pulsing and bulging in response to his changing breath and aperture.

Being a mere layperson, I’m not able to assess the quality of the research that was presented but I can confidently assert that the performers brought full musicality to their presentations, offering far more than demonstrations for scientific purposes. It seemed that the musicians and the researchers were each contributing the highest possible calibre of their work to this encouraging project.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Robin Roger

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