Dr. Robert Zatorre and the Neuroscience of Music


McGill University and the Montreal Neuro Institute (MNI) is the home to some amazing history. One should note the recent celebration at MNI of  the 100th birthday of Dr. Brenda Milner and for its place as the intellectual home of Donald Hebb — thereby making it one of the birthplaces of modern day neuroscience. Importantly,  for all of us compelled by music, Montreal ( with nods to McGill University, MNI, Universite de Montreal) is rather a nexus of some of the most exciting neuroscience of music and psychology of music research in the world. The internationally renown BRAMS laboratory boasts an incredible faculty  group that have localized, isolated, and defined the mechanisms known in the neuroscience of music.

It is simply outstanding.

As an enthusiast of psychomusicology, I had the enviable opportunity to speak with Dr. Robert Zatorre and to discuss how he got started on his work. In this first  clip Dr. Zatorre introduces himself:

Like so many of us, Dr. Zatorre loves music.  He actually came to playing music a bit later in his adolescence, but it is very strongly an avocation for him. He is one of the few researchers I’ve come across who has set aside some of the valuable space of lab for musical instruments so that he and his colleagues, his students, etc, allowing  an opportunity to make musical stimuli, to test neural activity during active performance, but also a chance to jam when the moment and spirit allows (p.s.  I’ve done the same in my lab — it’s made our stimuli so much more interesting).

In the following clip Dr. Zatorre discusses the development of his interests in neuroscience and the development of his musical abilities while an undergrad student at Boston University. The experience he had is some impressive stuff, and well done  to Dr. Jeffrey Rosen who clearly constructed the atmosphere to inspire and challenge his students! His upper division course work provided the challenge and opportunity to understand the functional and practical implications of the brain.  Here’s a a great recollection from Dr. Zatorre about those inspiring undergrad courses:

One can begin to connect the dots in the develop of Dr. Zatorre’s career. Young Robert is finding his skills and passion for music, but he sees the need to integrate that in his life with his motivation and capacity for neuroscience.  Moreover, he realizes he has the interest and talent to identify the neural mechanisms of behavior. But how to apply that with music?

For graduate school, Robert heads over to Brown University to work with Dr. Peter Eimas. Dr. Eimas was  not a music researcher, albeit and excellent researcher on children’s development of language. In point of fact, there were very few in the late 1970’s who could be identified as psychology of music researchers. Maybe a handful. One would be hard pressed to find any that were neuromusic researchers.   But Dr. Eimas did study speech/psycholingusitics and he was supportive  of his students.

To be candid, I wasn’t really sure what to expect of the relationship that Dr. Eimas had with Robert. If one browses the excellent publication record of Dr. Zatorre, he and Eimas only appear together on a handful of articles. Moreover, Dr. Zatorre has a few publications coming out of grad school as sole author or author with collaborators outside of Brown University. In  perusing all this one had to wonder, was he really getting a good opportunity to work with his mentor? Were they getting along?

Oh, yes.

Well, here is a fairly fantastic story from Dr. Zatorre explicating the dedicated support that he received from Dr. Eimas in graduate school  (Note that he refers to him as “Peter” in this clip):

Maybe Dr. Eimas was stern and exacting, but he saw in Robert some ideas that he wanted to support. So he drove with him for hours, spent all night working with him, and then requested NOT to be named on the manuscripts in deference to what he saw as his auxiliary role. Instead he would insist on all credit to Dr. Zatorre.  Like I said, it’s fantastic!  Dear students — if you are reading this and I spend hours driving you, booking space at Haskins labs, and consulting on your project, please assume some place for me in the authorship of the manuscripts that come as a result.

Dr. Zatorre graduates and embarks on his career, dedicating himself to the study of music through neuroscience. I had to ask him: how was that received? Recall, at the onset this was not a well-traversed area of Psychology. Certainly, the Psychology of Music existed, but it was a small field with really no representation in neuroscience at that time (early 1980’s). Here’s how he described those early days studying music:

Today  there are dedicated journals for the study of music, cognitive neuroscience of music, etc, but clearly that foundation was laid by the hard fought efforts of Dr. Zatorre and others. Is music a “fluffy” topic, or is it a complex, evocative auditory stimulus the recruits auditory, motor, emotional (pleasure) and visual responses worthy of use in evaluating the mechanisms of the brain and behavior? Can we agree the answer is now a resounding, “yes”?

Dr. Zatorre offered one more wonderful insight about the development of his career that I wish to share with you. During the 1980’s he was able to do the work forging solid psychophysical foundations for the neuropsychology of music. But, really, his career and the opportunities for scientific advancement in this area were dramatically enhanced by the emergence of neuroscience in the 1990’s and thereafter. In this final excerpt from our discussion, Dr. Zatorre describes the emergence of this technology for neuroimaging (and PET, in particular).

The historian in me is elated: the first PET built right at the Montreal Neuro Institute! It feels like a front seat for the dawning of the new age of Psychology. As Zatorre poetically describes in that clip, this is what it must have felt like for Galileo!

There’s much more to tell, but I head back to the BRAMS lab shortly for more goodness, and will keep more  of this conversation with Dr. Zatorre for the book that follows. Maybe more.

Here are some of the fantastic publications from Dr. Zatorre:

Zatorre, R. (2005). Music, the food of neuroscience?Nature434(7031), 312-315.

Zatorre, R. J., & Belin, P. (2001). Spectral and temporal processing in human auditory cortexCerebral Cortex11(10), 946-953.

Zatorre, R. J., Belin, P., & Penhune, V. B. (2002). Structure and function of auditory cortex: music and speech. Trends in Cognitive Sciences6(1), 37-46.

Zatorre, R. J., Evans, A. C., & Meyer, E. (1994). Neural mechanisms underlying melodic perception and memory for pitch. Journal of Neuroscience14(4), 1908-1919.

Zatorre, R. J., Evans, A. C., Meyer, E., & Gjedde, A. (1992). Lateralization of phonetic and pitch discrimination in speech processing. Science256(5058), 846-849.

Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences98(20), 11818-11823.

Halpern, A. R., & Zatorre, R. J. (1999). When that tune runs through your head: a PET investigation of auditory imagery for familiar melodiesCerebral Cortex9(7), 697-704.

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