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Listen to This: Neuroscience and Music in Conversation

October 06, 2023 | By Margo Lakin

Originally published by Trinity College Communications

Traditionally, the arts and the sciences at Duke have been viewed as two distinct and unrelated fields of study. But it isn’t uncommon to see students with defined paths in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) choosing to double major or minor in either the performing or visual arts — intentionally adding these disciplines to their course loads because they recognize the benefits the arts can bring to not only individual career goals but also shared human experiences.

Julia Leeman, a double major in Neuroscience and Music, was first drawn to biology and psychology in high school.

“I found it interesting to reflect on what others were thinking, but I was also fascinated by the idea of understanding the biological basis,” the senior explains. “I knew that when I went to college, I really wanted to see what neuroscience was all about.”

As a first-year student at Duke, Leeman was a part of the FOCUS program, Cognitive Neuroscience and the Law, and learned first-hand what primary research can look like in the field. The program sparked a fascination that eventually led to lab work with Edna Andrews, Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Distinguished Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, using fMRI to measure brain activity by tracking changes in blood flow to the brain.

“That’s when I knew I wanted to be a neuroscientist,” she says. 

Currently, Leeman can be found at the O-Lab, collecting electroencephalography (EEG) data for her senior thesis focusing on whether the changes in voltage measured can differentiate whether a person is imagining speech or another type of sound.

Along with her passion for science, Leeman makes room for her other love: music. The vice president of Duke Chorale, member of Duke Opera Theater and Trinity Ambassador grew up in a musical home, with a mother who plays piano and a dad who loves to sing for fun. Leeman and her twin sister, who also attends Duke, have been singing together for as long as they can remember.

“Something that I love about being in the Music Department is that it's such a small — yet diverse— community,” she shares. “Many of the people who I sing with in the chorale aren’t music majors, so I’m able to learn about different parts of campus and disciplines — which is so interesting.”

We sat down with Leeman to talk about the benefits of including music in her coursework and what her interdisciplinary studies look like at Duke.

Why has it been important for you to include music in your studies at Duke when your career path is focused on neuroscience?

I couldn't really imagine my education without both neuroscience and music. They really balance each other out, and I’m always challenged because I’m using different parts of my brain.

Image of Leeman performing
Leeman finds that neuroscience and music challenge her to use different parts of her brain.


Leeman finds that neuroscience and music challenge her to use different parts of her brain.

For example, when I’m studying my music, I’m often thinking about why the composer made certain choices and how he or she is affected by life experiences and the understanding of the human perceptual system.

For my neuroscience side, I think understanding how music impacts humans on an emotional level and helps them to communicate with each other is important because I’m studying how sound is processed in the brain.

Do you find your interdisciplinary interests across the sciences and the arts are encouraged at Duke?

Absolutely. I took an interesting class called Music and the Brain, which was taught by Tobias Overath, who is the professor running the lab I’m currently in, and Scott Lindroth from the Music Department.

In the class, I was able to apply my knowledge of the auditory system to composition and understand how composers use human perception in their works. For example, we discussed the French composer Claude Debussy’s “La cathédrale engloutie” or “The Sunken Cathedral.”

I learned how Debussy used the low notes of the piano that are very close to each other. Since the critical band of the low end of the piano is wide, these notes that are close together in the lower range create a roughness or a muddy tone that allowed the composer to evoke the idea of a cathedral either sinking or rising from a lake.

I’ve also worked with the Bass Connections’ Performing Embodied Communities: New Paths for Cultural Institutions, where I researched arts organizations that connect people to their communities. I focused on Music & Memory, an organization using personalized music for people with dementia. And I was recently named a Faculty Scholar for my work with memory and music.

Do you find your music studies have also helped with your science courses and career plans?

My music coursework has definitely given me a lot of practice in structuring my self-motivated projects. In many of my music classes, I have semester-long projects that culminate in compositions played by the Music faculty — which is one of my favorite things about the department.

Thinking about how to start something like that is so important and transfers seamlessly into the sciences, where I also think about my independent research work. I’ve discovered that starting with an idea and seeing it through to fruition is related in so many unexpected ways.

I’ll be applying to Ph.D. programs this fall in cognitive neuroscience, where I’ll hopefully study human hearing, language and music. Eventually, I want to become a professor because I really love teaching.