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Rocker, Scholar Connect on Sound Waves

Legendary Todd Rundgren visits Northwestern to discuss music's impact on the brain

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Rock musician Todd Rundgren, best known for his 1972 hit “Hello It’s Me,” visited Northwestern University for a lively discussion with neuroscientist Nina Kraus about how music shapes the nervous system and improves communication skills.

Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Physiology and Communication Sciences at Northwestern's School of Communication, hosted the April 1 event in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, which she directs.

Rundgren, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and record producer, toured the lab, meeting a young musician who had participated in previous studies. Later he underwent testing to demonstrate the electric activity generated by a musician's brain.

“Hello It’s Me” and other best-known songs Rundgren wrote, such as “I Saw the Light” and "Bang the Drum All Day,” are in regular rotation on classic rock radio. Rundgren also has produced scores of hit records, including Meat Loaf's “Bat out of Hell,” which became one of the best sellers of the 1970s.

The scholar and the artist found common ground in a shared love of music and its effects on learning. They talked in detail about Kraus’ and others’ research exploring how music affects humans across the lifespan, especially by enhancing memory and the ability to understand speech in noise.

"This research makes a strong case for music education from a scientific perspective,” Rundgren said. “We frequently see studies about the ways in which making music can influence a student socially and academically -- and obviously artistically -- but this data involving brain development adds compelling evidence to support the importance of bringing music to all students."

The event highlighted the lab's school-based neuroeducational projects, with an emphasis on the biological impact of music education in Chicago high schools and the Harmony Project, a nonprofit organization that provides free music instruction to children from Los Angeles gang-reduction zones.

Rundgren recently founded the Spirit of Harmony Foundation to promote music education in public schools.

"What made the visit extraordinary was our easy interaction over signals,” Kraus said. “Todd understands the nuances of sound waves. So we were able to speak in considerable detail about how sound signals are transcribed by the nervous system into the electrical voltages which represent sounds in the brain."

The Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory studies the biology of auditory learning with the goal of harnessing neuroplasticity to improve human communication in society.

After his visit to Northwestern, Rundgren played a show at Evanston's SPACE.