The volume of scientific research focused on explaining musical behavior has exploded in recent years. Recent research has emphasized the universality of musical behavior as a fundamental practice across human cultures, while also highlighting great variability from one individual to another in musical ability and interests. Scientists in this arena are interested in how these behaviors emerge from human biology and how musical activities such as lessons and practice, group music-making, and parent-child musical interactions might change our brains and affect non-musical aspects of life, such as academic achievement, social relationships, and even health. There are particularly striking connections between music and speech, which may have profound health implications when one system breaks down (such as dyslexia, developmental stuttering, or atypical rhythm) and whether musical interventions have therapeutic benefits (i.e. for age-related hearing loss or autism). Advances in genetic methods also hold promise for large-scale population-based studies aimed at understanding the underlying biology differentiating musical abilities such as rhythm.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recognized the importance of research on music, neuroscience, and health, having recently awarded $20 million in new grants on this topic. These sorts of new efforts may shed light on open questions in the field: Does music training or even “innate” music ability change how we hear speech and how we learn language as children and into adulthood? As we are learning more every day about individual differences in music skills and their genetic basis, we are curious about whether tone deafness and poor rhythm occur in isolation, or is there a deeper relationship to health and brain? Can the socio-emotional benefits of musical experiences be mobilized to improve society at large? What can research in non-human animals (i.e., songbirds) reveal about the evolutionary and cultural forces that may shape musical learning and more broadly, auditory communication?
To answer your questions about the biology of music and language, we have a panel of experts:
Psyche Loui, PhD (u/Psyche_Loui): I am an Assistant Professor of Creativity and Creative Practice in the Department of Music at Northeastern University, and I am director of the MIND (Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics) Lab, a multidisciplinary laboratory which studies the neuroscience of music perception and cognition. My work broadly addresses questions in the science of music, including why music elicits strong emotions, how the brain learns to perceive and produce music, and how music can be used to help those with neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Simon Fisher, PhD (u/Simon_Fisher_PhD): I am a neurogeneticist investigating biological pathways that underlie distinctive aspects of human cognition and behaviour. As a postdoc, I was co-discoverer of FOXP2, the first gene implicated in a developmental speech and language disorder. Currently I am a director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and Professor of Language and Genetics at the Donders Institute of Radboud University, both located in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Laura Cirelli, PhD (u/Laura_Cirelli): I am an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Toronto. I study how engaging in musical activities can be a social and an emotional experience for infants.
Cyrille Magne, PhD (u/Cyrille_Magne): I am a Psychology Professor at Middle Tennessee State University. My current research focuses on the neural basis of prosody perception and the link between sensitivity to speech rhythm cues and reading skills.
Shelly Jo Kraft, PhD, CCC-SLP (u/ShellyJo_Kraft): I am a clinician, scientist, and associate professor specialized in the etiology of developmental stuttering. My current research focuses on the biological and behavioral genetics of stuttering, epigenetic complexity and gene-to-gene interactions influencing speech production and the multiform stuttering phenotype.
I am leading a study to discover more about the genes and biological mechanisms that increase risk of stuttering. To identify these genes, we are working to collect as many saliva samples as possible from people around the world who stutter. I can answer any questions you might have about developmental stuttering, how we know it is genetic, and about participating in the study. If you are a person who stutters, or has ever stuttered, and you are interested in participating in our research study, please click here to register.
John Iversen, PhD (u/John_Iversen): I am a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego; I have a background in physics developing tools to study dynamic mechanisms of cognition and development. One focus of my work is on the perception and production of temporal rhythms in music and language and potential therapeutic and educational applications of music.
Reyna Gordon, PhD (u/Reyna_Gordon): I am an Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where I direct the Music Cognition Lab (u/VandyMusicCog) and collaborate with the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute. My interdisciplinary research program is focused on the relationship between rhythm and language abilities from behavioral, cognitive, neural, and genetic perspectives. I also want to share an ongoing research participation opportunity:
We are interested in learning more about the biological basis of rhythm ability in adults. We invite English speaking adults to participate in our study. Participants will complete a 10-20 minute online task involving listening to different sounds and responding to questions, provide contact information, and may be asked to provide a saliva sample by spitting into a special kit, provided through the mail. If you participate, you can choose to be entered in a raffle to win a $100 Amazon gift card. Please click here to participate. You are also welcome to contact our team at [VanderbiltMusicalityResearch@gmail.com](mailto:VanderbiltMusicalityResearch@gmail.com) with any questions.