Commentary on “Interprofessional Education of the Next Generation of Musician-Scientists through Music Cognition Research Training"

Miriam Lense
February 14, 2020

Commentary on “Interprofessional Education of the Next Generation of Musician-Scientists through Music Cognition Research Training: An Innovative Platform for Health Professions and Biomedical Research”: Connections to the VUMC National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab

Miriam Lense, PhD, Co-Director, Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab

VUMC NEA Research Lab, Project Director


In our recent article, my colleague Dr. Reyna Gordon and I discuss ways that music cognition research serves as a training ground for interprofessional education (Gordon & Lense, 2020). Dr. Gordon and I co-direct the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab, which is based in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC).

Music cognition is a field that is inherently interdisciplinary, bringing together scientists and clinicians from a range of fields (e.g., psychology, neuroscience, communication sciences, engineering, music, biology, mathematics, computer science) working alongside musicians, educators, and public policy collaborators. There are few training programs specifically in “music science”; therefore, from the earliest stages of training and education, students interested in music cognition learn to work across disciplinary boundaries and to critically evaluate approaches to studying the science of music.

In interprofessional training, team members focus on common goals utilizing diverse skill sets, knowledge bases, and perspectives/approaches. Interprofessional education builds professional identity and is associated with increased positive attitudes toward interdisciplinary learning approaches and teamwork (e.g., Hood et al., 2015; Wellmon et al., 2017).

Our National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Research Lab into the Arts, Health, and Social/Emotional Well-Being, which was awarded to the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab and Program for Music, Mind, and Society at Vanderbilt in 2018, exemplifies interdisciplinary approaches to research and training. The keystone study of our NEA Research Lab examines the impact of the SeRenade Program, a parent-child integrated music class that provides parent training and peer inclusion within a musical play context, on social and emotional well-being in families of children with and without ASD. SeRenade was designed by a clinical psychologist (Miriam Lense, PhD) and developmental psychologist (Sara Beck, PhD), who is also an accomplished songwriter and singer, with input from music therapists, behavior analysts, and caregivers of young children with ASD.

Through our NEA Research Lab, we have provided training to students and trainees from disciplines including special education, speech-language pathology, psychology, and neuroscience. Examples of training opportunities include didactics on ASD, child development, behavior management, and music cognition; immersive experiences in the SeRenade music class program where trainees directly support families of young children; and hands-on data collection and analysis in techniques including standardized assessments, behavior coding, eye-tracking, and video motion analysis. As students train and develop their projects, they work with other trainees from different educational backgrounds as well as with multiple faculty members whose disciplines may differ from the students’ primary academic affiliations. Thus, students learn to integrate their discipline-specific training with other approaches and to navigate differences in perspectives and expertise in order to conduct meaningful interdisciplinary research.

In one example of an interdisciplinary project conducted as part of the NEA Research Lab, students from each of the above disciplines were initially trained in behavioral approaches to measuring child engagement by a clinical psychologist and a behavior analyst. They then received supervision from a clinical psychologist and a music therapist in supporting child engagement during music class activities. Under the supervision of a clinical psychologist, the students collaborated to create and refine a behavior coding scheme to measure engagement during the music class, reliably code behavior during live and video-recorded sessions, and conduct statistical analyses and interpretation. Based on their interests and backgrounds, the training emphases varied across students from different disciplines, but all students were cross-trained on different project aspects and worked together to develop the final products.

Our NEA Research Lab also provides opportunity for training that extends beyond the academic institution. The Music Cognition Lab is a member of the Inclusion Network of Nashville, which also includes multiple Nashville arts organizations as members. Through the Inclusion Network, our NEA Research Lab was connected with the Nashville Symphony. NEA Research Lab student trainees participated in outreach events through the Nashville Symphony such as their sensory-friendly family concert series for young children. The Nashville Symphony also provided small-group ensemble experiences and instrument petting zoos for families participating in the SeRenade Program. Student trainees learned approaches to increasing accessibility of community events to families of children with ASD and other intellectual and developmental disabilities, while symphony musicians were familiarized with our NEA Research Lab’s activities and approaches to engaging families in our music research.

Students additionally receive interprofessional training by attending quarterly Music Research Forums hosted by our NEA Research Lab. The Music Research Forums feature presentations and discussions led by academics from varying disciplines all interested in the science of music. Key aspects of the Music Research Forums are that they cover a wide range of methodological approaches to studying music cognition and that they allow for discussion of projects at any stage of development. Students take part in conversations addressing methodological and conceptual issues in music science and consider how different disciplines define research questions and make decisions about methodology and data interpretation. Examples of topics discussed in Music Research Forums include using electrophysiological, genetic, and behavioral coding methods to study music; comparative psychology approaches to studying rhythm and music; historical perspectives on synesthesia; and determining and engaging stakeholders in arts research.

As we describe in our article (Gordon & Lense, 2020), recent years have seen an increase in attention to and funding for music cognition research. The field recognizes the need for building capacity to conduct this interdisciplinary research (Cheever et al., 2018). Interdisciplinary training occurs at all levels of education in music cognition and prepares students for diverse career paths by supporting their skill development and their interest in and ability to work across disciplinary boundaries. This training approach and its benefits have been voiced by students participating in the NEA Research Lab at VUMC. As one alumna of our NEA Research Lab described, “As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I serve my clients’ communication needs through interdisciplinary teams because my clients’ ability to effectively communicate is dependent upon how their communication is shared and supported in all contexts. My experiences in an interprofessional research team provided me with the foundational skills needed to collaborate with colleagues with varying professional perspectives in order to synthesize creative solutions towards shared goals.”  -- Rita Pfeiffer, MS, SLP, alumna of the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab, as quoted in Gordon and Lense, 2020.


Related Readings of Interest:

Gordon, R.L. & Lense, M.D. (2020). Interprofessional Education of the Next Generation of Musician-scientists through Music Cognition Research Training: An Innovative Platform for Health Professions and Biomedical Research. Music and Medicine, 12(1).

Cheever, T., Taylor, A., Finkelstein, R. et al. (2018). NIH/Kennedy Center Workshop on Music and the Brain: Finding Harmony. Neuron, 97(6), 1214-1218.

Summary of "The Visual Music of Synesthesia"

Meredith Watson, Research Analyst, Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab
July 1, 2019

Dr. Polina Dimova, scholar of Russian and European literature, music, and visual art, was the guest speaker at the April 2019 Music Research Forum. Dr. Dimova presented on modernist artists’ experience and fascination with synesthesia -- the phenomenon of mixing the senses (e.g. perceiving sounds as colors). Dr. Dimova presented examples from the work of artists such as Annie Besant, Wassily Kandinsky, and Frank Kupka, who are all thought to have been synesthetes. She also discussed how artistic movements have shaped cultural associations – for example, how the Bauhaus movement has created cultural color associations between certain shapes and primary colors. Forum members discussed the difference between true synesthesia (automatic and consistent cross-sensory perception), cultural associations, and artistic metaphors. With forum members ranging from backgrounds in the fields of art and English to psychology and neuroscience, subsequent discussions considered what is meant by “evidence” for synesthesia and how to integrate anecdotes, case studies, and controlled experiments to understanding cross-disciplinary topics such as synesthesia.

The discussion group participated in several experiential exercises, testing their own color and music associations with different musical and visual prompts. For example, forum members listened to an excerpt of Richard Wagner’s “Prelude to Lohengrin” and shared their own color associations. While individuals varied in their specific color associations (e.g., warm colors of oranges and yellow vs. cool colors like blue and purple), all connected the colors and images in their heads with feelings of growth and new beginnings.

Reflections on the Synesthetic Experience in the Music of Richard Wagner

Youjia Wang, Undergraduate Student (Neuroscience, Music), Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab
July 1, 2019

Commonly hailed as the “King of Opera”, Wagner is best known for his contributions to the operatic tradition. He really sought to push opera to the next level. He coined the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total art work” to describe his vision for what opera is meant to be. To Wagner, the opera is supposed to be a comprehensive form of art that seamlessly blends together visual art, drama, and music. He tried to tie the music in his operas directly to the story and the events on stage. His goal was to elicit extra-musical objects, ideas, and emotions through the use of this music and thus create a more coherent experience for the audience. Wagner wanted his audience not just to hear music, but to also think of objects, colors, moods, emotions, and much more. Wagner wasn’t the first composer to write music with this goal in mind, however he was one of the most skilled at it.

Leitmotifs are short musical themes associated with a particular object, person, or setting. Wagner was particularly effective at using them to elicit extra-musical experiences from his audience. Some notable examples of leitmotifs include themes for Siegfried, Valhalla, and a simple sword in his Ring Cycle of operas. However, Wagner wouldn’t just assign a theme to each setting or character and then reuse the exact same theme over and over again. Instead he carefully manipulated these themes for specific situations. For example, shifting a single note downwards by a half-step can shift the key from major to minor and give a darker, more serious mood to what used to be a happy and lighthearted leitmotif. In a tender moment the leitmotif might be shifted into a higher range, which can give the music a softer, lighter feeling. As a result of these manipulations, the music develops along with the characters and plot of an opera. Regular attendees of Wagner’s operas can often predict exactly what will happen on stage based on the music that precedes it. Wagner created a synesthetic experience for his audience so that they could see objects and feel emotions based on the music that they heard.

The opinions expressed in materials on this website are those of the author(s) and do not represent the views of the National Endowment for the Arts Office of Research & Analysis or the National Endowment for the Arts. The Arts Endowment does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information included in these materials and is not responsible for any consequences of its use. This NEA Research Lab is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (Award#: 1844332-38-C-18).