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February 23, 2003

Professor bridges music, science gap

From: Iowa City Press Citizen, IA - 23 Feb 2003

By Jeff Charis-Carlson
For the Press-Citizen

This week's Q & A is with Kay Gfeller, a professor in the University of Iowa School of Music and the department of speech pathology and audiology. She also is the director of the UI music therapy program and a member of the Iowa Cochlear Implant Team.

Q: At 3:30 p.m. today, you will be giving the UI Presidential Lecture on "Beauty and Meaning in Music . . . Lend Me Your (Bionic) Ears." Can you highlight your talk for us a little?

A: I'm going to be talking on a number of levels. First of all, I will mention that Americans spend more money on music than they do on prescription drugs, according to one source. So, there must be something about music that makes many people seek it out. Something that brings pleasure to us on a variety of levels.

I'll also talk about how music is something that we use to mark the emotional events in our lives. It's unusual to go to a wedding or a funeral or any other many celebratory event or time of tragedy without having music play a role. Just think about all the music we heard after 9-11 in all the national events of mourning that took place. Music is just something that we want to use in order to develop a deep emotional connections.

It's also available when we want to protest. It's one of the ways that we can get across our indignation over social injustice.

And I'll also discuss how music is one of the ways in which we form cohesive groups. It marks us both as a culture, and it even marks those in a counter-culture.

Q: In your experience, then, what exactly makes music so meaningful to so many people? Why are sounds without linguistic value able to create emotions?

A: Part of the way music creates meaning and emotions is related to our biology - the way our brain is able to organize the non-linguistic signals and then put them into patterns that are meaningful.

The ways in which we then relate those sounds to cultural meanings and significance are quite important. Sometimes, the emotion that we get when we hear a piece of music comes from an earlier emotional event in our lives. Hearing the music just brings back the memory. When you hear people say, "Oh, they're playing our song," they are associating their memories of falling in love with the music.

Frightening events work the same way, which is why movie-makers use music to make us feel afraid or anxious. Through cultural conventions, composers have become very competent and clever about knowing what music is going to have a certain kind of emotional content or association.

So, the way music becomes meaningful has a biological basis as well, as a learned aspect, as well as a social and cultural foundation.

Q: In your research at University Hospitals, you deal with patients who have lost their access to music because of profound deafness. How do they articulate that loss? Is there any substitute for that loss?

A: It really varies from one individual to the next. One of the women I interviewed - we do interviews and some early testing to get a sense of the impact that this loss of music has on an individuals everyday life - was the daughter of musicians, and the first sound that she remembers hearing was her mother playing the piano. For her, losing the enjoyment of music was a tremendously saddening circumstance. It not only limited one of her chief forms of appreciating beauty, but it also took away many of her cultural connections because much of her social life revolved around music. For her, the loss was very serious indeed.

There are other people, however, for whom music is not particularly meaningful. I work with individuals who were born deaf, and who find a great deal more meaning in visual art and other forms of culture. In that case, music is not particularly relevant or important. There is considerable variation across the population.

Q: How therapeutically effective is music in cases of Alzheimer's disease or other related dementias?

A: First, I should be clear, that while I've done research on this, I'm not going to address it directly in the talk.

That said, it all depends on the individual. One of the awful things about this disease is that people will experience ongoing decline that limits their ability to communicate verbally and do a number of everyday tasks. One of things nice about music, however, is that we find that people even in medium to advanced stages of decline can respond in positive ways to some kinds of music - if that music is appropriately selected to their level of understanding. In that case, music is one way that can make a positive social connection and engage the person in a task in which they are still able to function in a functional manner.

Q: Do you consider yourself primarily a musician or a scientist? How do you bridge those labels?

A: I grew up as a musician. I am formally trained as a musician. I have a degree in music. But even in high school, I was debating whether I was going to major in music or major in science. So, I have always been struggling back and forth.

Back when I was in high school, of course, girls were not encouraged to go into the sciences. So, I didn't have as many opportunities. As an adult, then, I have been delighted to bring together my interest in science and my passion for music.

One of the biggest challenges, however, is that music has its own vocabulary, and science has its own vocabulary; music has its own method of inquiry, and science has its own method of inquiry. In a sense, I have had to bridge the gap between two very different disciplines that have two very different ways of going about their work. It's been both very challenging and very interesting.

Q: Your experience at the university since joining the faculty in 1985 has been broad. Besides serving in the School of Music and the department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, you've been an affiliate faulty member in aging studies, an associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as an international visiting scholars at a number of universities. What's the secret of balancing all those roles and still producing interesting research?

A: There's been some long days and late nights. The most important thing, I think, is making sure that you work with great people. I have worked with some wonderful people who have helped to bring me up to speed in areas that were new to me. Plus, I search actively for connections within any group.

I'm always amazed at how what I can learn in everyday life has relevance for my teaching and my research.

Likewise, I see a huge link between my classroom and my research. My students really help me clarify my own understanding of things because they ask such good questions. Of course, sometimes I don't' get the balance right. I have both good days and bad days. But, over all, I feel very fortunate to do what I do.

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