The art of music...the science of cognition

November 10, 2011
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 2 minutes

Julia Redmond

The Silhouette


Victor Hugo once said that, “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” As it turns out, he was right—the mind can interpret more meaning from music than people might have thought, according to Dr. Stefan Koelsch.

Koelsch, professor of Psychology at Germany’s Freie Universität Berlin, visited McMaster on Nov. 5 to share his knowledge on music cognition. The seventh annual public integrated lecture and concert was hosted by the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind (MIMM).

“[MIMM] deals with a kind of science we can all relate to, all understand,” said Dr. Gianni Parise, Associate Dean of Research and External Relations for the Faculty of Science.

The concert portion of the evening began with a performance by the piano duo of Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann. The two have performed together for more than two decades, playing in various cities across Europe and North America, earning much acclaim along the way.

Seated, facing each other, at two grand pianos at the front of Convocation Hall, they performed their first selection: Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. Koelsch used this as a platform for his introduction of extra-musical meaning.

Koelsch explained that a lot of music tells a story. This is done by providing iconic, indexical, and symbolic meaning. The meaning elicits emotion in the listener, and this reaction is a key element of music cogenics and the central focus of Koelsch’s research.

To demonstrate the significance of emotion in music, Koelsch described an experiment that was conducted on a native tribe from Cameroon in which the participants, who had no prior exposure to traditional Western music, listened to clips of music and had to identify them with photos demonstrating emotions.

The results of the study showed that even with no background knowledge, the participants could properly identify the feeling of the music, lending insight into the universality of music.

Koelsch further explained the neurology behind musical interpretation. The part of the brain that processes music is the same part that interprets semantics, further supporting the concept of music as a language.

The lecture was punctuated with more musical selections. Margaret Bardos, an Ontario-based vocalist, joined the Bergmann duo onstage to perform such pieces as Climb Ev’ry Mountain and Send in the Clowns. Flutist Laural Trainor, director of MIMM, along with McMaster Music professor and flutist David Gerry, played the rather quirky song Cats in the Kitchen, composed by Philip Bimstein.

Even before the show was over, Koelsch brought the audience to their feet, encouraging a physical interpretation of the meaning in music while the Bergmann duo played selections from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Koelsch extended concluding words of advice,  “you don’t necessarily constantly have to think about musical meaning,” he said, “Sometimes you can just enjoy music and your brain can do the rest.”

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