Diving into the neuroscience of music

Posted by Julia McCarren on Dec 12, 2017 10:26:24 AM

Julia McCarren, graduate research assistant at WMU's Brain Research And Interdisclipinary Neuroscience (BRAIN) Lab


My fascination with music’s effects on the brain began during childhood. I remember sitting in my bedroom as an 8-year-old listening to Avril Lavigne’s 2002 album Let Go on my portable CD player. I sat for hours playing my favorite songs on repeat until I memorized every vocal nuance. Listening to music created otherworldly adventures. The sounds of my favorite songs gave me chills and vivid visual experiences. Music’s power to manipulate emotions mystified me even at a young age.

Battling mental illness as an adolescent, I turned to music, singing in particular, for spiritual grounding. I ambled through middle school in a cloud of depression that made it difficult to connect with the people around me. However, singing gave me the power to express what I could not express through words. Listening to music allowed me to experience the positive and powerful feelings I could not feel otherwise. While singing, the world around me slowed down, and I saw my environment with more clarity. Making music felt like breathing in oxygen after being underwater for too long. It helped me make sense of my life and the world I lived in. 

I always wondered...how? What’s going on in my brain when I’m singing and listening to music?


Julia, left, performs a duet with jazz bassist Crystal Rebone in Urbana, IL.


As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), I nurtured my two passions: music/vocal jazz and psychology. I became enamored with the freedom I felt while singing jazz. I found the genre empowering because I could express myself freely through improvisation and new arrangements of old standards. It amused me that I was singing so many standards in the year 2017 that were written in the 1920s, almost 100 years earlier. Again, I was curious...what is it about this music’s effect on people that allows it to withstand time and generations?

I learned about music therapy when I went to a workshop held by a music therapist working at the Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, IL. I decided I wanted to be a music therapist because the field combined the best of both worlds in my eyes: music and the mind. I also wanted the chance to bring musical experiences to populations that had been neglected throughout history--the incarcerated, the elderly, those with mental illnesses, disabilities, neurological disease, traumatic experiences, and/or in poverty. I applied to WMU’s graduate equivalency program in music therapy hoping to be a part of the work in the Brain Research And Interdisciplinary Neurosciences (BRAIN) Lab under the direction of Ed Roth, the director of the music therapy program. I didn’t know I’d be sitting in it less than two years later. 

Today I’m working as the research assistant in the BRAIN Lab alongside Ed Roth, BRAIN Lab Manager Meghan Feeman, and music therapy graduate assistant Alycia Sterenberg, MT-BC. The BRAIN Lab makes its home on the second floor of the College of Health and Human Services. Here we explore the neurobiological effects of music through a collaborative approach. We develop research that may benefit populations affected by trauma or neurological deficits. Every day in the lab, I learn more about what happens in the brain and body during musical experiences.


From left to right: Ed Roth, Dr. Sangwoo Lee, Kevin Abbott, and Alycia Sterenberg, MT-BC discuss areas of collaborative research at a BRAIN Lab Meeting.


During our weekly meetings in the BRAIN Lab, energy fizzes through the room. Ed Roth spoke for the entire lab team when he asked during one BRAIN Lab meeting, “How exciting is it that we get to help uncover knowledge that does not yet exist?” He’s right. The knowledge base regarding neurobiological responses to music is vast compared to what it was 20 years ago, but there is still so much to learn.

In lab meetings, we consult professionals from other disciplines to design projects. The first collaborator I met in the lab is Dr. Sangwoo Lee,assistant professor of exercise science, at WMU. Dr. Lee initially approached Professor Roth to collaborate and design a project investigating the sonification of movement. Dr. Lee posed the question, “How does sound affect movement?” when I toured his lab with my peers in music therapy. Dr. Lee’s lab consists of six infrared cameras for motion capture. Lee’s collaboration with the BRAIN Lab is fueled by a desire to conduct research that will help clinical populations with Parkinson’s Disease or Stroke. A collaborative project involving experts in both music therapy and exercise science may help design better interventions for improving gait and movement among individuals with neurological conditions.


Leandra Mayfield, graduate student in music therapy, participates in a demo of the capabilities of Dr. Lee’s motion capture system.


At the BRAIN Lab, I also met Dr. Michelle Suarez, Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy. As an occupational therapist, Dr. Suarez brings to the table research interests that include feeding and eating, self-regulation, and trauma. Michelle also collaborated with music therapist Caitlyn Bodine on a grant that funded OT and MT for mothers in opiate recovery and their babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. 

I recently met Kevin Abbott, interactive media specialist with the Office of Information Technology, in the lab. Kevin has been combining media technology with the arts for the last 20 years. Currently, Kevin is working with students to develop virtual reality content for learning, and will soon be opening WMU's first virtual reality lab. His other active projects include projections for "Falling Table" with the WMU Department of Dance and Jesus Christ Superstar with the WMU Department of Theatre.

Emily Carlson, MA, MT-BC, a doctoral researcher in Music Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, and alumna of WMU’s music therapy program, joins BRAIN Lab meetings from Finland via Google Hangouts. Carlson’s research investigates the relationship between trait empathy and dyadic behavior in free dance movement. In a recent lab meeting, Carlson shared her interest in research related to micro-movements and sensory integration in individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In particular, she is interested in collaborating with members of the BRAIN Lab using Dr. Lee’s motion capture capabilities to examine micro-movements as a diagnostic tool and way to measure empathy among individuals diagnosed with Autism.


Ian Kells demonstrates how the BRAIN lab’s technology can be used to measure electrodermal activity (EDA), or skin conductance, during research trials.


I have the pleasure of meeting other WMU grad students in the lab. The BRAIN Lab is a tool for graduate students in Music Therapy who conduct research for their thesis projects. Meghan Feeman, BRAIN Lab manager, conducted a recent thesis project at the BRAIN Lab to assess the impact music had on test performance through the arousal hypothesis. The study implemented music at various times during a task (Verbal Processing section of the GRE) to analyze changes in arousal, as measured by electrodermal activity (EDA). The study was divided into two thesis projects with Meghan Feeman analyzing the physiological data through electrodermal activity (EDA) and Ian Kells analyzing the behavioral data through the number of questions answered and number of questions correct to assess whether arousal had an impact on test performance.

Another graduate student, Alycia Sterenberg, MT-BC, is working on a thesis project regarding the relationship between music and nostalgia. Differing levels of individual characteristics and relationships are said to be associated with levels of music-evoked nostalgia including: current mood state, nostalgia proneness, familiarity, enjoyment, arousal, & autobiographical salience. The purpose of the study is to explore these relationships and how it influences the level of nostalgia the individual experiences.

The BRAIN Lab is currently assisting four undergraduate students with their senior thesis project for the Lee Honors College. Their project will focus on the relationship between performer(s) and audience members by assessing whether the audience member and performer experience similar feelings of emotion, bonding, and interruption of the performance. The students are most interested in how musical improvisation may impact this relationship. The students will conduct this project during spring 2018. The BRAIN Lab strongly supports further development and knowledge in undergraduate research.

As I approach the second year of my graduate program, my current research interest is the neurological and social experience of musical improvisation. I want to better understand how musical improvisation can be used in clinical music therapy to treat clients experiencing feelings of loneliness, social withdrawal, or isolation. My master’s thesis will investigate the effect of improvisational experiences on feelings of social bonding. 

I have a Bachelor’s degree in music, but I’ve never believed that I should only call myself a musician. I’m a musician, but I can also be a researcher, writer, teacher, and music therapist. Who knows, I might even get a PhD in neuroscience.

The BRAIN Lab is a safe place where researchers in different fields can come together to uncover knowledge that does not yet exist. At the BRAIN Lab, I get to pursue my passions for both music and psychology. I get to study what I love.



Julia McCarren is a graduate equivalency student in WMU's music therapy program, and she works as a graduate research assistant at the Brain Research and Interdisciplinary Neorsciences (BRAIN) Lab. She graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2016. 

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