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BrainCanDo: Music is Instrumental Conference

A Day Exploring Music and Learning

On Tuesday 14 June 2016, BrainCanDo hosted its second annual conference at BAFTA 195 Piccadilly, a stunning venue in Central London. The day was targeted at Music and Psychology professionals as we explored music and learning, more specifically what happens to our brain when we create music.

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It was a hugely inspiring day at the London venue where delegates were privileged to hear from world class speakers who posed enthralling questions such as ‘why does music make us move?’ and ‘why does music make us cry?’ There was also a rousing performance from Queen Anne’s School pupils, led by Paul Smith of VOCES8 fame and a highly engaging session from Conductor, Presenter and Education Ambassador, Dominic Peckham.

Speaking about the day, Mrs Julia Harrington, Founder of BrainCanDo and Headmistress at Queen Anne’s School said:

‘The day was a huge success. It was so professional, the venue was fantastic and our speakers were so engaging and insightful about the topic of music and the brain. I really do hope that our guests enjoyed themselves as much as I did and took lots away.’

Headmistress, Mrs Harrington, opened proceedings and in doing so raised further awareness of the BrainCanDo initiative to the delegates in attendance followed by Paul Smith, CEO and founder member of VOCES8. Paul introduced the revolutionary ‘VOCES8 Method,’ a teaching method proven to enhance development in numeracy, literacy and linguistics. He would display its effectiveness with the help of some Queen Anne’s pupils, for whom the method is firmly embedded in the ethos of their music education. They would spend the morning putting The Method into practice before returning to perform.

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Familiar faces to the BrainCanDo initiative, Dr Amy Fancourt (Head of Psychology at Queen Anne’s School) and Daniel Mullensiefen (Director of the MSc Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths, University of London) informed the audience of their findings from their recent BrainCanDo research project about how intelligence is related to certain musical skills and the link between musical ability and intelligence. Throughout their speech they made it clear that the key point to take was that adolescence is a time for tremendous growth and potential.

Professor David Hargreaves (Professor of Education and Froebel Research Fellow – Roehampton University) then came to the stage to explore the psychological theories that try to explain our musical preferences. He ultimately concluded that we all have our own networks of association, our own musical fingerprints. David gave everyone some real food for thought during the morning break as delegates discussed their own musical tastes and the reasons that they thought may be behind this.

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The vivacious Dominic Peckham, world renowned Conductor, Presenter and Education Ambassador then took to the stage. He started with the first 15 minutes by saying nothing and engaged the audience in some amazing and humorous crowd participation as he explored life through song. Dominic went on to speak about his industry and in particular his travelling where it was clear to him that song and music is one of the very few things that brings people together. He drew from his own difficult life experiences in order to underline the parallels between vocal expression and personal happiness concluding that the one thing that matters is learning to listen. Every member of the audience was with him and as he closed with another participatory session, those that had previously refused to partake were on their feet. We must take a moment to thank Dominic for taking time out of his busy schedule to come and spend the day with us. Thank you Dominic!

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Everyone was left with the same thought, ‘follow that Victoria!’ And follow that Dr. Williamson did with her in-depth exploration of music and its use for our wellbeing challenges, emphasising that there is no skill required, we all have innate abilities to listen, play and make music. We all naturally prefer eudaimonic music as it engages our brains with a sense of meaning. Our musical preferences often relate to the flow of eudaimonic music whereby it can help you run faster, lift a heavier weight in the gym or help you study, that longer term life fulfilment that helps with a state of wellbeing.

Before lunch, Paul Smith (VOCES8) returned to the stage to demonstrate the benefit of the VOCES8 method with the young girls from Queen Anne’s School who he had been working with all morning. It was a simply amazing musical performance by the girls and was a true reflection of the effectiveness of the method in enhancing the development of the brain via the use of music as well as engaging our audience, adding to the interactive nature of the day’s activities.

The afternoon session at BAFTA began with a fascinating talk from Dr Jessica Grahn, (Associate Professor, Brain and Mind Institute, Department of Psychology, University of Western Ontario, Canada) investigating how and why music makes us move. Jessica described how it was the rhythm and most importantly the beat that makes us move which is also the case with animals. A particular highlight was a video of Ronan the Sealion who is one of the first mammals to show signs of keeping a beat (there may be more, but the research has just begun). Jessica concluded that the brain finds music and moving to music more rewarding with others for example our social responses are improved as we become more helpful when in sync.

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Dr Jonna Vuoskoski (Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music Perception and Cognition) followed on, arguing that music may give an evolutionary advantage through its promotion of social bonding and group cohesion. Thus playing music with others involves empathy which brings with it several related processes including the coordination of actions and synchronization.

The day ended with riveting a talk from Professor Michael Trimble who discussed why music makes us cry and the significance of our responses. From his work and research, Professor Trimble concludes that only humans cry emotionally, brought on by external events. These tears act as a signal but they are different with age and gender. For infants, it is a way of communicating, pleading and nurturing where in contrast for adults, they are more controlled and only released by stimuli.

What’s in store for the BrainCanDo programme in the future was the main question asked of Founder and Chair, Mrs Harrington who commented:

‘Following the huge success of our day at BAFTA, we are looking to further the public prominence of the BrainCanDo programme through various events including conferences and seminars. With the backing of The Grey Coat Hospital Foundation we are able to engage in innovative research projects which will only serve to help the next generations of pupils through our school at Queen Anne’s and hopefully many others across the country.’