Music, Cognition, and the Brain

Musical activity combines perceptual, cognitive, and motor skills in real time, and it can offer social and health benefits for diverse populations. While psychologists and neuroscientists probe musical activity for insights about the human mind and brain, music scholars examine its cultural, pedagogical, and theoretical aspects. Though these approaches can complement each other, scientific and humanistic studies of music are often disconnected. This can result in experiments with flawed musical stimuli and musicological writings with problematic assumptions about perception and cognition. At Western, we seek to combine these approaches, building connections among music education, music theory, hearing science, and the cognitive neuroscience of music.

In recent years, cognitive neuroscience has begun to offer insights into how the brain processes music, and how music can affect the brain. Non-invasive brain imaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) let us monitor neural activity and blood flow in the brain while individuals listen to or perform musical stimuli. Such tools may enhance our understanding of musical expertise or emotional responses to music, and may provide new knowledge about the efficacy of different musical training paradigms. Combined with other techniques (such as virtual acoustics and motion capture), these technologies allow psychologists and neuroscientists—but also performing musicians, educators, and musicologists—to ask new scientific questions about rehearsal and teaching strategies, performance techniques, audience responses, and many other areas of potential interest.

Interdisciplinary Research & Training

The Music, Cognition, and the Brain Initiative is based in the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University. It makes links with the Brain and Mind Institute, the National Centre for Audiology, and other faculties at Western. It supports collaborative research projects and the exchange of ideas, through pilot study funding, seminar talks, and retreats. The initiative also offers cross-disciplinary opportunities to students. By working across disciplinary boundaries, undergraduate and graduate students will benefit from the expertise of faculty members and resources beyond their own discipline.


This initiative was spearheaded by Katie Overy, Director of the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMSHD) at the University of Edinburgh, who was a Visiting Professor of Music Education at Western from 2014 to 2015. Initial meetings and conversations with faculty members across the Western campus—including Daniel Ansari, Carol Beynon, Jonathan De Souza, Jessica Grahn, Vladimir Hachinski, Ingrid Johnsrude, Ewan Macpherson, Kevin Watson and Ruth Wright—revealed shared interests in the topic of musical expertise and the brain, and support for interdisciplinary research collaborations and graduate dissertations. Visits to the launch events of the new LIVElab at nearby McMaster University inspired further ideas into experimental possibilities in this area.

With financial support from Research Western, the Don Wright Faculty of Music, and a SSHRC Connection Grant, our first interdisciplinary research retreat was held in October 2014, followed by further retreats, interdisciplinary pilot studies, and a public symposium. Ongoing collaborations and future events will build on this opportunity to share expertise and facilities between the outstanding faculty, students, and resources of the Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western’s world-leading Brain and Mind Institute, the National Centre for Audiology, the LIVElab at McMaster University, and the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development.

Jonathan De Souza took over as director of the initiative in January 2016. From 2017–2020, the initiative is supported by a Western University Interdisciplinary Development Initiative (IDI) grant.

Kevin Watson will serve as IDI Director for 2019–2020.


If you are interested in collaborating, supervising, volunteering, or other research opportunities please contact Kevin Watson at kwatso54@uwo.ca

Collaborating Groups and Institutions

Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University
Brain and Mind Institute (BMI), Western University
National Centre for Audiology (NCA), Western University
Large Interactive Virtual Environment Laboratory (LIVELab), McMaster University
Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), University of Edinburgh