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Music – does it affect the brain?

FOR THE RECORD: Dr. Cheryl Willman was incorrectly identified in this story. She is the director and CEO of the University of New Mexico Cancer Center.

This is a scientific symposium with concerts attached.

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is hosting a series of lectures, dialogues, panel discussions and concerts as part of the symposium Music, The Brain, Medicine and Wellness. It brings together some of the world’s leading figures in music therapy, psychological science, neuroscience and cognitive science.

The idea for the symposium grew from the brain of Marc Neikrug, the festival’s artistic director. His interest in the relationship between music and the brain began with his readings of Oliver Sacks’ and Daniel Levitin’s books on the subject. Sacks wrote “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” and Levitin “This is Your Brain on Music.”

If you go
WHAT: Symposium on Music, The Brain, Medicine and Wellness
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 4-Aug. 6
WHERE: Eldorado Hotel & Spa, 309 W. San Francisco, Santa Fe
HOW MUCH: Tickets available for individual or all symposium events by visiting or at the door. Tickets for Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival events are at or by calling 505-982-1890 or at the festival box office or at the door

“Any composer who has ever lived, and most performing musicians all know that you play music and something happens,” said Neikrug, who also is a composer and a pianist. “But the idea that scientists could have equipment to measure stuff as opposed to making suppositions really intrigued me about three to five years ago.”

The next thing that spurred his interest in the music-brain relationship was a 2010 New Mexico Symphony Orchestra performance of his composition “Healing Ceremony” by with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and baritone Matthew Worth.

“It was a healing kind of piece,” he recalled.

That concert had its germ in a conversation Neikrug had with Dr. Cheryl Willman, the director and CEO of the University of New Mexico Cancer Center. The center is a sponsor of the symposium.

“… I found that she had some resonance for this (symposium) idea and more than that, she grasped how powerful the music really is,” he said of Willman.

“It’s been fantastic to me that she’s gotten the money together, the organization together and she’s found how to get the real leaders in the field. They’re coming. It’s like a dream to me.”

Dr. Willman, who also is a festival board member, anticipates that the intellectual exchange at the symposium “will be fun and quite amazing. The hope is that we create something in Santa Fe that’s a think tank or maybe an ongoing event.”

She said participating scientists have told her that it’s rare for them to attend music-and-science crossover events with lectures on cutting-edge research.

Dr. Willman said some of the symposium’s discussion topics include music and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, aphasia and Parkinson’s disease; the music that individuals hear between the ages of 15 and 21, which becomes “seminal and pivotal” in their lives; and music that allows end-of-life communication and a sense of peace for patients.

One of the symposium presenters is Suzanne Hanser, chair of the Music Therapy Department at the Berklee College of Music. In one session, Hanser said she will demonstrate with music some of the simple exercises an individual can do with music “to bring about a relaxation response or a focus of attention away from any discomfort. Or perhaps it elicits beautiful images in the mind’s eye when you close your eyes and listen. Or it may bring up memories of a wonderful time or an important person in their lives. …”

The exercises are in her recent book-with-CD “Manage Your Stress and Pain Through Music.”

Hanser was part of the symposium’s scientific organizing committee that was looking for shared issues that the symposium participants could explore such as, “how music affects people, how music is used in people’s lives to better their well being and how it might even serve as therapy,” she said.

Two other symposium participants are Ani Patel of The Neurosciences Institute, who will talk on “Feeling the Beat: Are Humans Unique?” and David Huron discussing “Music and Emotion: Got a Feeling?” Huron heads the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory at Ohio State University.

Patel and Huron will speak at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 5 in St. Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Art Museum as part of a session that includes a music demonstration.

There is also a presymposium lecture/concert at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3 in the auditorium with Dr. Kamal Chémali and pianist Presca Benoit.

Symposium faculty will introduce two other festival concerts – piano concertos of J.S. Bach at 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center and music of W.A. Mozart, Arnold Schoenberg and Felix Mendelssohn at 6 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Lensic.
— This article appeared on page F3 of the Albuquerque Journal