Speaker at Pomona Discusses Connection Between Music and Neuroscience


Older woman smiles while looking at camera
Lois Svard, a professor emeritus at Bucknell University, is a lifetime pianist and neuroscientist.

Music is certainly ingrained in modern culture–you can’t drive to work without hearing the newest Katy Perry song on the radio. Music also fills television, movies, video games, upscale restaurants, elevators –the list goes on. Music is everywhere. Some might describe this as the natural result of capitalistic, unrestrained, hedonic excess.

Those people might be right. But many would argue against this, including one woman, a lifetime pianist and a neuroscientist–Lois Svard.

Svard, a professor emeritus of music at Bucknell University, believes that music is built directly into the human mind. She likes to cite a few observations as straightforward evidence: one, that every human culture has developed its own musical traditions; two, the pervasiveness of music in everyday life; and three, the striking ease with which children gain musical intuition.

In her lecture, “Are We Hardwired for Music?”, this Tuesday, Oct. 25, at Pomona’s Seaver Auditorium, Svard brought up the example of Derek Paravicini, a savant, blind and autistic, with an incredible capacity for memorizing and improvising melodies. Born extremely prematurely, Paravicini suffered retinal and neurological damage as a result of oxygen therapy when he was only a few weeks old.

According to neurologists, his musical skill appears to have a biological basis—a basis which has led researchers who hope to gain a greater understanding to intently study Paravicini. For example, the abnormal brain developments which contribute to Paravicini’s musical aptitude could help design methods to expand healthy musicians’ intuition. Lois Svard led two further talks on Wednesday, Oct. 26, also at Pomona.

During her first talk, Svard also examined a 2009 research project in which babies listened to complex drum rhythms while their brains were imaged, and it was found that by six months of age, infants had gained the ability to recognize and predict beats. Interestingly enough, the same study found that, by the age of one year, the same babies had lost the ability to predict the same beats.

Researchers concluded that this period poses a unique opportunity for learning music, because of neuroplasticity–musical connections are easily made during the period, and unused neural pathways are pruned near the end of the period. The project may have further significance in the greater context of neuroplasticity research, and in learning in other areas.

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