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The Power of Music


by Anne Levin

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I have watched the scene of the Sex and the City episode where Mr. Big finds Carrie in Paris, and confesses that she’s “the one,” countless times. And it never fails to make me weepy.

Yes, it’s touching. But I have realized, over the years, that the reason I tear up isn’t just the acting or the dialogue. It’s the music. And it gets me, every time.

What is it about music that is so affecting? Why do some songs, instrumental phrases, or percussive rhythms make us feel sad, elated, energized, calm, distressed, or any number of other emotions?

All the arts are powerful. But music is particularly, and immediately, relatable. No matter the culture or the language, it has a universal appeal.

Students from Princeton University’s Music Cognition Lab.

Professor Elizabeth Margulis

It turns out that our brains are wired for music. That relationship is the focus of Princeton University’s Music Cognition Lab, overseen since 2019 by Professor Elizabeth Margulis. In a converted space at the University’s Woolworth Music Building, Margulis heads a group of students from different disciplinary backgrounds in the exploration of music and the mind. Since coming to Princeton, she has developed several new undergraduate and graduate courses centered around an interdisciplinary approach to music and the sciences. The idea is to explore the potential and the challenges that characterize work at the intersection of science, the humanities, and the arts.

A mix of graduate (mostly) and undergraduate students, these “music scientists” have diverse interests. Where one is fascinated by the way musicians synchronize during performances, another is focused on how music affects people living with dementia. One works as a DJ at night. Several are singers who take part in the University’s choir program.

Music cognition “has its tentacles in everything,” Margulis says. Asked why some people are musical while others are not, she says, “This is a huge topic that people argue about a lot. There is a huge surge right now in large-scale approaches to music and genes.”

Research questions what part of musical aptitude, such as skill on an instrument, is inherited. “And they keep finding that more significant than the skill is the motivation to pursue the skill, and practice. The proclivity to do that seems to be genetically encoded,” Margulis says.

Her own involvement in music began with serious piano study, with an eye toward a possible professional career. Margulis was a dedicated piano student as a teenager, spending hours each day doing what serious musicians do: practicing.

After graduating from high school in St. Louis, she entered the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore, ready to focus four years on honing her artistry and technique. But something nagged at her.

Margulis sensed there was something more to the study of music than practicing. Since high school, she had been curious about cognitive science, which focuses on how the mind manipulates knowledge and how mental processes are realized in the brain. As she tried to concentrate on perfecting her piano technique, the questions only intensified.

“I had decided at the end of high school that I was going to go to a conservatory and give myself four years to focus on playing, and not be distracted,” says Margulis. “I tried. But it didn’t take me long to get a little restless on some topics. Why does music sound better if you hold it longer? Why do we return again and again to certain songs or phrases? Things like that. I started looking through the [Johns] Hopkins catalogue, and I found a course — Minds, Brains, and Computers. I wanted to enroll. My piano teacher said no, but I did it anyway.”

That rebellious move made it clear to Margulis that she needed to branch out. “I saw that you could take all these kinds of approaches and transfer them from questions about language, shift over, and ask them about music in a very similar way,” she says. “I learned something that you couldn’t at a conservatory.”

A collaborative concert with Trenton Music Makers and the Trenton Children’s Chorus performing “Lift Every Voice” on MLK Day 2023 at Trinity Church in Princeton. (Photo courtesy of Capital Harmony Works)

Involving children in music from an early age is the goal of Capital Harmony Works, the Trenton-based nonprofit encompassing the Trenton Children’s Chorus, Trenton Music Makers, and Music for the Very Young.

“Children spend so much time in school where the measure of success is often a test score,” says Paul Chapin, executive director of the organization. “Being part of a musical ensemble, or being a soloist, holds us to a higher standard of beauty, trust, partnership, and connection. And we’re responsible for creating something that moves us, moves our audience, and brings us all to a higher level. If we look at just test scores, we are excluding knowledge gotten in other ways. As growing musicians, we’re far more inclusive, diverse, and equitable. Little kids know it. Five-year-olds know it.”

Taking part in a musical endeavor can also help young people learn how to handle failure. “You work and rehearse and practice, and you’ve got a vision of what a piece should be. You get on stage and maybe you achieve that, maybe not,” says Chapin. “Students learn how to work through that, which is important in life.”

Programs for youth are key to the extra-curricular activities of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO). Musicians interact with elementary school students through its PSO BRAVO! programs. Members of the PSO’s string, winds, brass, and percussion ensembles make classroom visits, and the children make field trips to actual concerts.

Rossen Milanov conducted the Princeton Symphony Orchestra this September in performances featuring saxophonist Steven Banks, at Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. (PSO Staff Photo)

“The transformative power of music is a two-way street,” says PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov. “It requires an active participation on the part of the audience, some experience, patience, and preparation. One can attain it by starting early, having someone that can guide you through the process, and by being exposed to the appropriate repertoire. Expect smaller steps rather than giant leaps — similar to studying a new language.”

For amateur musicians, playing in a band, orchestra, trio, or any kind of ensemble can provide a creative release. “I enjoy playing live music and I like the interactions between bands and the audience,” says Jeff Tryon, art director at Witherspoon Media Group. “My feelings on stage are somewhat dreamlike — a mix of nervousness and confidence, and the darkness around me except for bright lights shining in my face. I’ve played with all sorts of bands over the years — from metal, to a drum and dance group, to indie rock. For me, playing heavy music really helps get out my aggression. And with all the energy spent on playing, it can be a workout, too.”

Trenton Music Makers’ youngest violinists are led by Daniella in a warmup at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, where they practice weekly. (Photo courtesy of Capital Harmony Works)

Those who are especially attuned to music are often entertained — some would say plagued — by “earworms,” those little musical phrases that get stuck in the brain long after they have been heard, played, or spoken about.

“They are incredibly prevalent. Until there was some research, I don’t think people suspected how prevalent,” Margulis says. “But over 90 percent of people say they get them once a week. There are people who have a pathological level of it. Overall, they are very common. And they are a great example of how not thinking about music limits the understanding of the human mind.”

The power of music is broad and all-encompassing, which can make it challenging to articulate. But many notables have been quoted on the topic, including Albert Einstein, who said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

Confucius said, “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”

And then there’s William Shakespeare with the immortal, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

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