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Schedule and Speakers 2014

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McGill Mini-Science 2014

The Science of Music

Wednesday evenings, February 26 to April 9, 2014

Playing well together: The science of temporal coordination among performing musicians (February 26, 2014)

Speaker: Prof. Caroline Palmer, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Performance, Department of Psychology. [Professor Palmer’s website]


This lecture describes recent research conducted with expert and novice musicians which demonstrates the extreme flexibility with which they adapt to each other, under split-second, demanding conditions. These behaviors represent complex examples of auditory perception, temporal expectations, and memory for long sequences that underlie our ability to synchronize our behavior with those of others. Most humans are capable of making music to some degree: clapping to a song, humming or even imagining a familiar melody. These are common behaviors that do not require musical training. This talk will focus on the one question that most puzzles scientists: how do we predict group behaviors, such as performance by a new ensemble of musicians, from what we know about individual (solo) performance?

About the speaker

Prof. Caroline PalmerCaroline Palmer is a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Performance, a Professor of Psychology and Associate Member of Music, and Director of the Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience training network at McGill. Dr. Palmer’s educational training was in music, statistics, clinical psychology, and cognitive psychology. Her research focuses on the sensory and motor systems that underlie musical and speech behaviours, their integration and neural correlates. She has published over 100 scientific papers on memory and sensorimotor integration in music and speech production (www.mcgill.ca/spl/). Her research is recognized in awards from the National Science and Engineering Research Council, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institutes of Health (USA). In her spare time, she plays the piano and tries to find others to play with her.

What we learn and when we learn it: sensitive periods for musical training (March 5, 2014)

Speaker: Prof. Virginia Penhune, Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Laboratory for Motor Control and Neural Plasticity. [Professor Penhune’s website]


This lecture will discuss what is currently known about sensitive periods in animals and humans, and describe possible models of the interaction of brain development and experience that may underlie sensitive periods for musical training. The impact of training or experience is not the same at all points in development. Children who learn to skate, speak a second language or play a musical instrument before the age of 7-8 are typically more proficient as adults. A wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that early training is important for musical skill, with Mozart, Pablo Casals and Yo Yo Ma among those who began playing as very young children. However, there has been little evidence directly demonstrating the impact of the age of start of musical training. This talk will focus on findings from recent lab research which compares behavior and brain structure in early-trained (before age seven) and late-trained (after age seven) adult musicians.

About the speaker

Prof. Virginia PenhuneDr. Penhune received her BA degree in Philosophy from Wellesley College in 1981. Upon realizing that the brain could be more fruitfully studied from the laboratory than from an armchair, she completed a PhD in Psychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University under the supervision of Dr. Michael Petrides. Her doctoral research examined the neural basis of auditory rhythm perception and production. She then pursued a post-doctoral fellowship at Laval University with Dr. Julien Doyon focused on the neural basis of motor skill learning. Dr. Penhune joined the Department of Psychology at Concordia University in 2000, and is also an adjunct member of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. During her career at Concordia Dr. Penhune’s research has been funded by grants from CIHR, NSERC and FRSQ. In addition, she held the FRSQ Chercheur Boursier Junior I and II career awards from 2004-2009. She is a founding member of the International Laboratory for Brain Music and Sound (BRAMS), as well as a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development (CRDH) and the Centre for Research in Behavioral Neurobiology (CSBN). Although not a trained musician, Dr. Penhune appreciates all kinds of music but she has a special love of soul music and tight harmony.

Nature’s chorus: Frog calls and bird songs (March 12, 2014)

Speakers: Prof. David M. Green, Redpath Museum [Professor Green’s website] and Prof. Jon Sakata, Department of Biology [Professor Sakata’s website]


This co-presentation by two biologists will focus on choral sounds in nature, specifically among animals such as frogs and birds. Many animals produce calls and songs in a variety of social contexts in order to communicate aggressiveness, territorial possession, sexual availability and individual identity. Their vocalizations bring mates together and keep rivals apart, and by eliciting vocal responses from other individuals, these animals converse in duets, trios and choruses. Just as the performance of music is learned in humans so, too, is there considerable learning involved in the production of animal sounds.

About the speakers

Prof. David M. GreenDavid M. Green is a Professor at McGill University and the Director of the Redpath Museum. He is internationally recognized for his expertise in the biology of amphibians and has been an outstanding contributor to the science of herpetology and the conservation of endangered species in Canada. Dr. Green’s research, ranging from genetics to functional morphology to evolutionary ecology, has significantly advanced our knowledge of amphibians and his leadership has significantly advanced Canadian science, conservation and natural history. He served as co-chair of the COSEWIC Amphibians and Reptiles Subcommittee for 14 years, during which time he completed the first assessment of all Canadian amphibians possibly at risk. He saw to the incorporation of COSEWIC into the 1993 Species at Risk Act (SARA), successfully negotiated with national aboriginal organizations about the inclusion of Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge into COSEWIC assessments, developed the concept of the Designatable Unit for COSEWIC, brought in quantitative criteria for COSEWIC assessments, developed the Species Appraisal Summary, and devised COSEWIC’s procedures for dealing with unsolicited reports and requests for assessment. A native of Vancouver, BC, Dr. Green obtained his B.Sc. in Zoology from the University of British Columbia and then moved to Ontario to gain his M.Sc. and Ph.D., both also in Zoology, from the University of Guelph. Soon after arriving at McGill as a young professor in 1986, Dr. Green started to work with Fowler’s Toads and his long term-study of the population at Long Point, Ontario, now spans 25 years. In his spare time he coaches baseball and plays double bass.

Prof. Jon SakataJon Sakata received his B.A. (Economics) from Cornell University in 1995 and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin in 2002. He was a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as at the University of California, San Francisco. He has been at McGill since 2010 and joined the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music (CRBLM) in 2011 to foster interdisciplinary research in the social and neurobiological foundations of language and music. His long-term research objective is to develop insight into the mechanisms the brain uses to make sense out of sound, to identify new and innovative methods to facilitate speech learning and treat disorders of human communication. His lab team investigates the neural circuits that mediate social influences on vocal learning and control in songbirds. His deep research interest is to understand the neurobiological processes mediating vocal learning, production and perception in songbirds. He is particularly interested in revealing how social interactions affect vocal learning and control. His lab is using behavioural, neurophysiological, and molecular approaches to uncover the brain areas that process social signals and mediate social influences on vocal learning and control. This research will lend insight into basic processes of vocal communication, learning and memory, and social behaviour as well as mechanisms underlying the evolution of sociality and individual differences in social behaviour. Dr. Sakata plays the guitar, bass, and ukulele.

Why we love music: A neuroscience perspective (March 19, 2014)

Speaker: Prof. Robert L. Zatorre, Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital [Professor Zatorre's website]


Music has existed in human societies since prehistory, perhaps in part because it allows expression and regulation of emotion, and evokes pleasure. This lecture presents findings from cognitive neuroscience that bear on the question of how we get from perception of sound patterns to pleasurable responses. It will show how pleasure in music arises from interactions between cortical loops that enable predictions and expectancies to emerge from sound patterns, and subcortical systems responsible for reward and valuation. This model integrates basic neuroscience of reward mechanisms with independently derived concepts, such as tension and anticipation, from music theory.

About the speaker

Prof. Robert L. ZatorreRobert Zatorre is a cognitive neuroscientist working at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University. He was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He obtained his undergraduate training at Boston University, where he completed dual degrees in music and in psychology, while working as an organist. He earned his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Brown University under the late Peter Eimas, and in 1981 took up a postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology with Brenda Milner at the Montreal Neurological Institute; shortly thereafter he took on a faculty position at McGill, where he has remained ever since. Dr. Zatorre’s research explores the functional and structural organization of the human brain using neuroimaging and behavioral methods. His principal research interests relate to the neural substrate for auditory cognition, with special emphasis on two complex and characteristically human abilities: speech and music. He and his collaborators have published over 150 scientific papers on a variety of topics including pitch perception, musical imagery, absolute pitch, music and emotion, perception of auditory space, and brain plasticity in the blind and the deaf. In 2002 the Canadian Institutes of Health Research granted him a Senior Investigator Award, and in 2005 he was named holder of a James McGill chair in Neuroscience. In 2006 he became the founding co-director of the international laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound research (BRAMS), a unique multi-university consortium with state-of-the art facilities dedicated to the cognitive neuroscience of music. He has played the organ since he was a child.

Music and Molecules (March 26, 2014)

Speaker: Prof. Joe Schwarcz, Director, Office for Science and Society [Professor Schwarcz' Wikipedia page]


Great music has the right chemistry, but the wrong chemistry has also played a role in the life of musicians and composers. Was Mozart poisoned? Did lead come between Beethoven and his music? Just why does music have charms to soothe a savage breast? What is so special about a Stradivarius instrument? It all comes down to a question of molecules!

About the speaker

Prof. Joe SchwarczJoe Schwarcz is Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging. Professor Schwarcz has received numerous awards for teaching chemistry and for interpreting science for the public, and is the only non-American ever to win the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Grady-Stack Award for demystifying chemistry. He hosts "The Dr. Joe Show" on Montreal's CJAD and has appeared hundreds of times on The Discovery Channel, CTV, CBC, TV Ontario and Global Television. Dr. Schwarcz also writes a newspaper column entitled “The Right Chemistry” and has authored a number of books, “Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs,” “The Genie in the Bottle,” "That's The Way The Cookie Crumbles," “Dr. Joe And What You Didn’t Know,” “The Fly In The Ointment” “Let Them Eat Flax” “An Apple A Day,” “Brain Fuel,” “Science, Sense and Nonsense,” “Dr. Joe’s Brain Sparks” and “Dr. Joe’s Health Lab,” all of which have made it on to the best seller list. He is also an amateur conjurer and often spices up his presentations with a little magic. Dr. Schwarcz has been awarded the 2010 Montreal Medal, which is the Canadian Chemical Institute’s premier prize recognizing lifetime contributions to chemistry in Canada. In the spring of 2011 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cape Breton University. He also holds a previous honorary degree from Athabasca University. In November of 2011 the McGill Office for Science and Society received the largest gift ever in Canadian history ($5.5 million) from philanthropist Lorne Trottier to further its work in promoting scientific education and critical thinking.

Your Brain on Music (April 2, 2014)

Speaker: Prof. Daniel Levitin, Department of Psychology [Professor Levitin’s website]


This lecture describes the components of music, such as timbre, rhythm, pitch, and harmony, and ties them to neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, cognitive psychology, and evolution. One particular focus of the talk is on cognitive models of categorization and expectation, and how music exploits these cognitive processes. This lecture challenges the assertion that music was an incidental by-product of evolution, arguing instead that music served as an indicator of cognitive, emotional and physical health, and was evolutionarily advantageous as a force that led to social bonding and increased fitness.

About the speaker

Prof. Daniel LevitinDaniel Levitin received his first tape recorder, a 7″ 3M open reel machine, when he was 4 years old. He soon began clandestine recordings of conversations between his parents. It was only through the loving intervention of his grandfather that the machine wasn’t confiscated, and as a condition of keeping it, the young Levitin switched from spoken word recordings to music recording. His recording career came to an abrupt halt when, while experimenting with different sized capstan wheels at the age of 5 (effected by piling up multiple layers of electrical tape on the rubber bushing), the beloved and beleaguered workhorse 3M broke. He continued his recording activities and experiments with a series of open reel, cassette and 8-track recorders throughout grammar school, recorded the junior high school jazz band (of which he was the conductor and musical arranger) and made demo tapes for singer/songwriter friends while he attended high school in Los Angeles. On the advice of A&M Records staff engineer Larry Levine, Levitin postponed entry into a recording career to obtain a college education, and enrolled at M.I.T. Following an incident in which his stereo system caught fire in a dorm room while listening to “Abbey Road” at 110 dB, Levitin transferred to Stanford University, where he studied Music and Psychology. Just before his senior year, the music department informed him that it was impossible to major in saxophone. Not to be denied his musical destiny, he left school to become a record producer. For ten years, Levitin worked as a session musician, commercial recording engineer, live sound engineer, and record producer for countless rock groups (including work with Santana, Narada Michael Walden, and The Grateful Dead), and also served as Director of A&R for 415/Columbia Records. A long time pursuer of interesting guitar tones, Levitin’s custom modified guitar amplifiers have provided guitar sounds for albums by Blue Öyster Cult, Joe Satriani, and Chris Isaak. Dan has been awarded 17 gold and platinum records. In 1990, he returned to college at Stanford, earning his B.A. in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science, and lecturing on audio recording in the Music Department. Dan went on to earn his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Oregon, researching Absolute Pitch in expert and non-expert populations. He taught at Stanford University for 10 years, as a Lecturer in the Departments of Music, Anthropology, History of Science, Computer Science (Program on Human-Computer Interaction), and Psychology. Currently, he is a James McGill Professor of Psychology, Behavioural Neuroscience, and Music at McGill University. He has consulted for several internet music companies, and has been active in issues related to intellectual property rights and copyright in the digital music domain.

Infectious music : How microbes have shaped our music (April 9, 2014)

Speaker: Prof. Joaquin (Quim) Madrenas, Canada Research Chair in Human Immunology, Department of Microbiology & Immunology [Professor Madrenas’ website]


This interactive presentation will use music, art and history as tools to learn about Infectious Diseases. It will also explore the impact of these diseases on music, art and history.

About the speaker

Prof. Joaquin (Quim) MadrenasDr. Joaquín (Quim) Madrenas is Full Professor, Tier I Canada Research Chair in Human Immunology, and Chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at McGill University, as well as Founding Director of the Microbiome and Disease Tolerance Centre (MDTC) at McGill and Executive Director of the CIHR Human Immunology Network (CHIN). Dr. Madrenas received an M.D. degree at the University of Barcelona, specialized in Nephrology and Transplantation at the University Autonoma of Barcelona, and obtained a Ph.D. degree in Immunology under Dr. Phillip Halloran at the University of Alberta. He was a visiting associate with Dr. Ronald Germain at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, MD, USA), before returning to Canada. He was the founding Director of the FOCIS Centre for Clinical Immunology and Immunotherapeutics in London, ON, the first FOCIS Centre of Excellence in Canada. Dr. Madrenas has made seminal contributions to Immunology and Medicine as illustrated by his more than 110 publications in journals including papers in Science, Nature Medicine, Immunity, Journal of Experimental Medicine, Lancet, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. Among his discoveries are the different signalling patterns through the T cell antigen receptor, the mechanisms of signalling by CTLA-4, and the signals delivered to T cells by bacterial superantigens. For his research, he has received numerous awards including a Canada Foundation for Innovation Researcher Award, a Premier’s Research Excellence Award, a Canada Research Chair, an Ontario Distinguished Researcher Award, The John B. Dossetor Mission Award in Research from The Kidney Foundation of Canada, the UWO Dean’s Award of Excellence in Research and UWO Faculty Scholar Award. In 2011, Dr. Madrenas was inducted to the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Professor Madrenas is also an active teacher of Immunology, having received the Schulich Leader Excellence Award in Undergraduate Medical Education, four UWO Hippocratic Council Basic Science Teaching Awards, and being included in the Who’s Who in Medical Sciences Education. He also serves as associate editor of several high profile journals, and has extensive experience as a reviewer for national and international agencies and institutional boards. Professor Madrenas is actively engaged in public education and community outreach in Science and History as illustrated by his recent engagement as a TEDx Montreal speaker. Research in the Madrenas lab is funded by CIHR. Dr. Madrenas plays guitar and has sung in a choir for many years (London Pro Musica). He was president of the London Pro Musica Choir and London Choral Foundation from 2003 to 2005.