In the Loop
Alumni News : Oct 30, 2023

UF School of Music ethnomusicologist studies rhythmic music and the aging brain

Aaron Colverson began his career as a jazz violinist, but while pursuing his PhD in Ethnomusicology at UF COTA, he discovered his niche at the intersection of music and brain health while conducting research with neuropsychologists in the McKnight Brain Institute.

By Jessi Smith

When Aaron Colverson, (PhD, Ethnomusicology, '23) graduated from Berklee College of Music with his BM in Music Performance in 2009, he encountered the challenge familiar to many working musicians: securing consistent financial stability in a performance career. He was making early-career ends meet via a patchwork of performance gigs, teaching, and working in a Boston-area cafe when a security guard at Berklee introduced him to a cultural exchange program in Kenya. 

Colverson joined the exchange program and his interest in ethnomusicology took root as he embedded himself in cultural and historical traditions of East Africa. But after two years residing in Kenya, Colverson returned to the U.S. to begin graduate work and assist his family with figuring out a care protocol for his father, who was diagnosed in 2014 with a rare brain disorder called frontotemporal dementia that affects language and social behavior.

When he returned to the States, Colverson’s growing fascination with the study of music across cultures, combined with the personal experience of navigating his father’s illness, influenced his career path toward conducting research that investigates relationships between music and brain health.

“Being a musician [who was] raised by a father who was a biologist and a mother who's a gender scientist, I was always exposed to ways of thinking that were not just arts based, but also science based. And this … put together this confluence of my interest in looking at music from a biological lens,” Colverson says.

Colverson arrived at the University of Florida in 2014 to pursue his postgraduate degrees in Ethnomusicology at the UF College of the Arts | School of Music. While working on his master’s degree, Colverson began to forge research relationships with neuropsychologists in the Mcknight Brain Institute and the Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory at the UF College of Medicine that continue today.

“The combination of being trained in ethnomusicology—the cultural anthropology of music, in particular—while also thinking about music in a scientific, statistical, and quantitative way … was very compelling to me. And there were folks in the [McKnight] Brain Institute and the Center for Cognitive Aging and Memory who were interested in doing that kind of collaboration; who are musicians themselves,” Colverson says.

“Thankfully, I was at a large enough institution to facilitate this type of collaboration. There are many people across the country and across the globe … who want to do these kinds of trans-disciplinary collaborations—where you’re really coming from totally different worlds to create new thought processes; to open up the tradition of ‘you have your discipline; here's my discipline. Let’s just blow them apart and then put them back together again.’ 

I was fortunate to have the folks in musicology at [COTA] say, ‘yes, go pursue your dream of working with these scientists’ and also fortunate that those scientists were super curious about working with a musician and seeing what kind of project we could create.” 

In the first year of his PhD, Colverson was awarded the Leonardo Fellowship from the UF/IFAS OneHealth Center of Excellence. He notes:

“That fellowship led me down my career path because it really transformed my opportunity to study music and aging. The brain health piece was a big component of that.”

Colverson completed his PhD in Spring 2023 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Memory and Aging Center and Global Brain Health Institute, where conducts mixed-methods research with UCSF neuropsychologists investigating the impact of music on brain health in populations living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Researching the effects of rhythm on the brain

Colverson’s current research at UCSF builds directly on his research at UF.

His dissertation, "A Neuro-Ethnomusicology of Aging: Exploring Rhythm Perception and Brain Health Between Disciplines,” investigates relationships between rhythm perception, learning and performance, and cognition in healthy aging adults.

“There are a lot of different components in the auditory signature of, for example, a violin. You have the timbre, the rhythm, and the dynamics [like] the volume—is it high or low? You have articulations—is it short; is it long?—and the tempo: fast or slow? [And you have] the rhythms, in terms of what's going on subsequently in each of the beats … You can pull apart all those different things and see what's going on in the brain as people are perceiving them, and, at least from a scientific lens, study one or two elements at a time,” Colverson explains. 

The research Colverson conducted alongside neuropsychologists from UF’s McKnight Brain Institute focuses on the rhythm element through a participant-interactive series of “rhythmic musical activities.”

“I clapped rhythms to the participant and asked them to repeat that rhythm in a series of three learning trials—and then, they had a performance trial at the end. We repeated that process 30 times for 60 individuals … I was using a Likert Scale of one to five; one being the worst and five being the best across all those trials and across all the exercises,” Colverson says.

The aim of this research was to evaluate relationships between rhythm perception, learning, and performance and cognitive functioning in healthy aging. This work may help interdisciplinary teams of neuropsychologists and musicians better understand dynamic interactions in the brain when humans perceive and physically respond to musical rhythm in coordinated ways—and whether “exercising” the brain by exposing it to complex rhythms could impact cognitive ability. 

“We know that music changes the brain and musical training changes the brain. That's a really important detail,” Colverson says. 

“We also know that more ‘complicated’ music may have disproportionate effects on different parts of the brain. And by ‘complicated,’ I'm referring to, for example: in rhythm, you can have a beat that's basic … but if it increases in speed [or] if you change the amount of beats in a given moment—the attention that's required to track those changes may have some effects upon cognitive ability. My dissertation was mostly pilot study associations: looking at rhythm, looking at cognition and aging, and seeing if they connect with one another statistically,” Colverson says. 

“If we were to expose people to musical stimuli—particularly those who want to engage in such activities as they age—maybe it would not only be fun for them, but something that could improve their brain health,” he adds.

The first phase of this research involved participants with healthy brains. The new phase that Colverson is conducting at UCSF is comparative research with participants who have dementia diagnoses.

Identifying the positive impacts of familiar music for dementia patients

Although research quantifying the aging-related cognitive associations with exposure to musical rhythm is still relatively understudied, Colverson notes a growing body of evidence that suggests the positive social impacts of exposing dementia patients to music that is familiar to the individual.

“Neurons that fire wire together wire together,” Colverson explains, noting that the environment and things we are exposed to at certain times in our lives—such as a song or other musical composition that an individual may associate with a significant moment in their life—“very much shapes who we are.” 

“This is where I think that tests could prove … [that] how we emotionally respond to environmental stimuli could be a very important aspect of how the brain wires,” he says.

“For people with Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal [dementia], Parkinson's, and other types of dementia … I would say that the familiar music piece is the most critical detail: music that can bring them back to a time—particularly if they're more severe in their disease—that is familiar to them and can provide a certain sense of safety and a certain sense of identity. 

This is what time and time again, the data are showing in very rigorous studies, and certainly in reviews of original research: that folks in long term care facilities who are in a very foreign physical environment and social environment—when you provide them with familiar music, it can help them to identify with that environment. They become socially aware. They start interacting with people in a more conversational manner, at least for a temporary period,” Colverson says. 

Modern medical technologies support research that drives policy

Collaborating with neuropsychologists at UF and UCSF unlocks access to increasingly advanced brain imaging technologies that can help researchers in the Arts/Music in Brain Health field quantify impacts that are being documented—at least anecdotally—by professional and informal caregivers.

“Technology now allows access to understanding what's going on in the brain and in the body in ways that we didn’t have access to, certainly 20 years ago, but arguably even ten [years ago]. Magnetic Resonance Imaging, MRI, magnetoencephalogram, MEG, and electroencephalogram—the EEG machines that have all those electrodes—are great examples. There's also amazing physiological technology that's allowing more understanding of autonomic nervous system behavior, including everyday Apple Watches and other wearables that tell your heart rate and skin conductance,” Colverson says.

“These types of technologies are not only being created, but also becoming more accessible as more of them are created and distributed. This allows for confirmation of preliminary data that was published earlier on, as well as in recent literature. By repeating these kinds of outcomes and showing them in broader populations and different clinical populations with different diseases: it’s creating a much stronger story for folks to confirm [the data]—particularly when they need confirmation in order for policy to be created.” 

Colverson adds that “folks who are in the field and doing the work—certainly informal caregivers who are at home taking care of folks with disease: they know that incorporating familiar music into patient care works. They do it on a daily basis. It's part of their life. But to prove that; for that to be something that society can accept—I think these technologies are really helping compel society to have more trust in these types of stories.”

Navigating the challenges of interdisciplinary research

Bolstering interdisciplinary efforts between arts and science disciplines comes with obstacles on both sides of the coin—particularly in the varying ways that researchers trained in qualitative data collection, and those trained in quantitative data collection, conduct studies and measure and communicate their resulting data.

“My training in ethnomusicology did not include statistical methods,” Colverson notes. “I bring that up because I would argue that from a pedagogical perspective, lack of statistical training limits my communication ability with quantitative scientists … and this is also a barrier for folks who are more on the quantitative side who want to do work with folks who are more qualitative.”

Until recently, ethnomusicology was more narrowly described as the study of music across cultures (namely, non-Western music) but Colverson notes that recent shifts in the field—such as the emergence of the medical ethnomusicology subfield—means that ethnomusicologists are bringing their unique scopes of interest and qualitative research skills into spaces where they weren’t formerly present, such as institutes for neuroscience research where quantitative data reigns supreme.

“This type of transdisciplinary collaboration is a very new kind of burgeoning orientation,” Colverson says.

“Somebody once told me ‘one cup of coffee at a time’—and I really stick with that because it is a day-to-day process, and it's a day-to-day challenge that requires a lot of patience and a lot of persistence. But I think the UF Center for Arts in Medicine (CAM) is a great example of that kind of collaborative effort."

In addition to his rhythm perception research that originated in UF COTA and the McKnight Brain Institute, Colverson is a research associate with the UF Center for Arts in Medicine | Interdisciplinary Research Lab where he is part of a team working on an integrative review associating arts participation with social cohesion and wellbeing at the community level. 

Colverson notes that Jill Sonke (PhD), CAM’s Director of Research and Director of National Research and Impact for the One Nation/One Project initiative, recently visited UCSF’s Global Brain Health Institute for a round table discussion about her work with One Nation/One Project and CAM’s EpiArts Lab.

“The EpiArts Lab—the collaboration that we have at the Center for Arts in Medicine with colleagues at University College London (UCL)—is a perfect example of transdisciplinary research collaboration,” Colverson explains. 

“There are plenty of folks on the statistical side at UCL who are collaborating with us at CAM to integrate these methodological approaches: more focus groups and interviews and participant observation, and so on, with large scale longitudinal data available from public health record—to look at population level associations between arts participation and health outcomes. When you combine those [data] with nice paragraph-length vignettes that display the humanistic side of the experience folks have with the arts—it creates a story that both informs and touches people,” he says.

And combining data-grounded research with humanistic storytelling, Colverson reiterates, can drive policy more powerfully than either of these elements can achieve when presented separately.

“I think there's still so much space to develop this kind of collaborative work at the graduate level at UF,” Colverson adds.

“To create something novel; to really continue to push for the ‘Top 5 status’ that the upper administration and the Boards of Governors Regents and Trustees are interested in—we have to continue to push for scientific boundary-bending spaces to exist.”  

Encouraging artists, scientists, to seek common ground

Reflecting on his own journey—from struggling to find his footing and financial consistency in a performance career, to conducting brain research at a leading international institute for neuroscience—Colverson notes that even without traditional laboratory or statistical research training, musicians and artists graduating from COTA today are entering a workforce and post-grad landscape where their skills are in higher demand than they may realize.

“I think it's very safe to say that now is an excellent time to be entering into the ‘Music and Health’ and ‘Arts in Health’ fields. Music, in particular, is receiving a lot of attention from research—and, again: research tends to drive policy, which creates more opportunities in terms of employment,” Colverson notes.

“Right now is a very good time in that there are a lot of funding mechanisms. There's a lot of foundation support—particularly in Alzheimer's disease and dementia—so, there is quite a bit of opportunity to be pursuing this type of work.”

Colverson urges musicians and artists at UF, as well as scientists, to be curious about each other’s disciplines, to approach each other and initiate dialogues that reach beyond their traditional areas of study, and to seek opportunities for collaboration—whether in the broad and burgeoning field of Arts in Health, or entirely beyond it, in areas like engineering, agriculture, climate science, and so on—because the possibilities can be myriad when disciplines collide with intention.

“I encourage graduate students from within the UF College of the Arts to work collaboratively with our colleagues down the hill and continue advancing interdisciplinary research and education at the intersections of the arts and sciences,” Colverson says.