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Music on the mind

In her Music Cognition course, Hopkins alum and senior lecturer Monica Lopez-Gonzalez examines music through a highly interdisciplinary lens in order to answer complex questions of human brain function and development

If we can understand what music is—how it works and what it means—then we have the key to understanding the most complex questions of human cognitive development, says Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, senior lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Science at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

According to Lopez-Gonzalez, asking questions about music leads to insights about how the human species creates, innovates, and adapts. "[Music cognition] boils down to how we as human beings have evolved to understand, enjoy, create, and experience music, and that is so essential to our humanity that we can understand what the human mind-brain is if we can understand what music is," she says.

Last semester, students explored this idea in Lopez-Gonzalez's highly interdisciplinary Introduction to Music Cognition, a Peabody at Homewood course that aimed to explore music from the perspective of those disciplines that can connect to it—which turns out to be a great many. In the course of their studies, students delved into subjects including math, philosophy, neuroscience, computer science, history, education, biology, and medicine.

"It is precisely because there's an entire history as to how we human beings have evolved to enjoy, to play, to experience music, that we can actually learn about our neurobiology," says Lopez-Gonzalez, a Hopkins alumna who has been teaching the course for 10 years. "We can learn about our cultural systems. We can study the biggest questions about the mind-brain through understanding music and how it affects our cognitive development, how it affects culture."

Monica Lopez-Gonzalez

Image caption: Monica Lopez-Gonzalez spent 25 years studying piano and is a 2010 alumna of Johns Hopkins, where she studied cognitive science.

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

To take students deep into the topic, Lopez-Gonzalez gives them a semester-long project to work on in groups. Each group were tasked with creating a website housing a series of podcasts and a policy memo on a topic of their choice, such as music education in the United States. "I push students to realize that science can have more much of an effect than just innovation at the scientific level, and can actually affect public policy," she says.

One group, calling themselves TheraMuse, looked at music therapy as an effective, affordable addition to other interventions for people with depression and anxiety. Through interviews with experts, four podcasts explore the connection between music and mental health and the ways music therapy can create changes in the brain to address the issues that cause mental illness. In their policy paper, which advocates for more widespread use of the intervention, the team proposes making music therapy available under Medicare and Medicaid and creating a continuing education module on music therapy for physicians.

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"I really liked the class not just because I love listening, playing, and learning about music, but also because Professor Lopez-Gonzalez directed the discussions in class to touch upon a wide variety of concepts, really fostering an interdisciplinary mindset," says senior Nikita Gupta, a member of the TheraMuse team who is majoring in cognitive science and has played the flute for 13 years. "The final project was unique; I had never thought of how my classes relate to policy work or ever made a podcast before. It was cool to learn so many things like this beyond the designated content of the class."

Those unexpected and revealing connections are exactly the point of the course, says Lopez-Gonzalez, who spent 25 years studying piano. She began developing the course, as a graduate student in the same department where she now teaches, as a way to bring more interdisciplinary thinking and work into the classroom. She says it is that type of learning, which she describes as "21st century Leonardo da Vinci style," that promotes the critical and creative thinking and writing that students will need regardless of the professional field they choose.

"It is precisely because there's an entire history as to how we human beings have evolved to enjoy, to play, to experience music, that we can actually learn about our neurobiology."
Monica Lopez-Gonzalez
Senior lecturer, Department of Cognitive Science

In her 10 years of teaching not only at Peabody at Homewood—but also Peabody, the School of Medicine, and the Applied Physics Lab—Lopez-Gonzalez has developed an unusual curriculum across schools and programs through 13 courses she created that use the same interdisciplinary approach. The courses, touching on the sciences, arts, humanities, and medicine, reach not only undergraduates and master's degree students, but also high school students through the pre-college program and lifelong learners through the Odyssey Program.

"I believe that science is an interdisciplinary field, and you cannot not look at other disciplines and how they inform how we do science, how we think about science, how we communicate science, and how we use science for change," she says.

The opportunity to reach past the traditional boundaries between disciplines inspires students to produce "phenomenal" work, she says, and also helps them see the relationship between research—including research they themselves might carry out in the future—and society. The course attracts students majoring not only in cognitive science and neuroscience, but engineering, the Writing Seminars, and anthropology, among others.

"We scientists have a duty to interact with the broader society in ways that effectively communicate what we're doing, why we're doing it, and why it matters," Lopez-Gonzalez says. "We're seeing the importance of having the confidence and skillsets to explain and communicate one's research because with science, evidence, data, truth, and numbers being challenged right now, if scientists do not have the understanding of how to narrate their scientific story to both a knowledgeable and non-knowledgeable public, then we're in trouble."

At the beginning of the course, Lopez-Gonzalez asks her students what music is, and responses tend toward the emotional and personal; for example, "It's an enjoyable experience." When she asks the same question at the end, students talk about the co-evolution of humans and music, the ways music changes our brains, and the universality of music across geography, culture, and time.

"We discussed what music is, how we experience it, and how it brings us together," says senior Patrick Huie, a computer engineering major. "With the election and the pandemic, there's so much discourse and news about how people are different. The chance to study and discuss why we love music and how it connects us together as individuals, communities, and as a species was engaging and refreshing, and made the class a highlight of my academic experience at Hopkins."