When The 54th Grammy Awards airs Sunday, Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Chair and professor of communication sciences, neurobiology, and physiology, won’t watching them. “I don’t have a television,” she admitted. Still, like Nicki Minaj, Bruce Springsteen, and the other big-name entertainers lined up to perform on “music’s biggest night,” Kraus has also been recruited to lend her talents to Grammy’s greater efforts.
Kraus and her colleagues in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory study the effects of musical experience on the nervous system. Their work has shown that having musical training can enhance a person’s ability to listen and learn—and even positively impact the aging process.
The Grammy Foundation is supporting two projects currently underway in Kraus’s lab. One study examines auditory attention in children, the other looks at children’s ability to decipher sound in noisy environments. In both cases, Kraus said, “Those with musical experience really do seem to have some advantages. And so we’re trying to understand the biological basis for this.” (By musical experience, Kraus means playing music, as opposed to just appreciating it. “I like to say you’re not going to get physically fit watching spectator sports,” she said.)
The Grammy Foundation’s interest is understandable. “I believe they would use the findings to advocate for the role and the strength of the arts, especially the musical arts,” Kraus said. “And the work has direct implications and applications for society, for education, for medicine.”
Kraus, who describes herself as a “hack musician,” plays classical piano, electric guitar, drums, and recently took up the electric bass. One might think that a biologist with a deep appreciation for signals-based research might rank Pavlov or Günter Blobel among her professional idols, but Kraus named Leonard Bernstein and Frank Zappa. “I heard Frank Zappa say that if he had to audition for his own band now, there is no way he would make the cut,” she said. “That’s how I feel about the people in my lab. They’re the best team of researchers one could ever hope to work with.” Other musicians Kraus admires: Dave Edmunds, Maria Callas, Judas Priest. And though she may not have tuned in for the Grammy Awards this month, she still shared in the spirit of the evening. She planned to spend the night, she said, “practicing bass.”
For more information about the work being done at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, visit www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu .