Music and Brains: the Surprising Link

The Batsheva de Rothschild workshop on 'Music and Brains: the Surprising Link' took place in Jerusalem between Feburary 10-13. The workshop, organized by an interdisciplinary team composed of Israel Nelken and Naftali Tishby from the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) and the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural computation (ICNC) at Hebrew University, Roni Granot from the Musicology Department at Hebrew University, Eitan Globerson from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and from Bar Ilan University, as well as composer, performer and ICNC student Nori Jacoby and Mr. Roni Zehavi, was a unique event that joined together neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, musicologists, and musicians in mapping the interidsciplinary interface between their different fields.

The main question that the conference addressed is that of the role of surprise in music and in brain processing. Speakers in the conference included some of the major researchers in their respective fields, including musicologist Simcha Arom and psychoacoustician Alain de Cheveigne from France, cognitive psychologists Stefan Koelsch from Germany and Istvan Winkler from Hungary, and musicologists David Huron and Carol Lynne Krumhansl from the USA among others. However, what marked the conference as a uniquely special event was the inclusion of a musical performance in each session, with the goal of illustrating the issues addressed by the speakers through a direct experience of music.

Most concerts were given by students of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, moderated by faculty members of the academy. In addition, one concert was given by vocal artist Victoria Hannah and the final concert was given by the Carmel quartet. The conference took place in front of packed halls at the Mishkenot Shaananim congress center.

The scientific highlights of the conference included a wonderful walk through the meaning of musical memory in its philosophical, neuroscientific and engineering sense by Alain de Cheveigne, a description of the process of deciphering an african song by Simcha Arom, a history of the major and minor modes and their musical meaning by David Huron, as well as a joint work of Nelken, Granot, Tishby and cognitive psychologist Talma Hendler from Tel Aviv university attempting to use one very simple musical work, Gyorgy Ligeti's Musica Ricercata II, as a tool for understanding the representation of surprise in both human and animal brains.