The Late Reverberant Sound

In the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, there is a small concert hall, with a grand piano dormant on the shining wooden floor. There are about a hundred empty seats, with the front row almost hugged against the stage. The space was designed by renowned acoustic engineer Yasuhisa Toyota, whose Suntory Hall in Tokyo has been called “the jewel box of sound.” While the traditional “shoebox style” pits the orchestra at one end with an audience seated in rows, his “vineyard style” surrounded the orchestra on all sides with clusters of seats at different angles, like the sloping terrace of a vineyard. After the Berlin Philharmonic was destroyed in 1944, the architect Hans Sharhoun observed that “people always gather in circles while listening to music informally,” and the Berlin Philharmonie was born. Since the 1960s, vineyard style has also appeared in Denmark, China, Finland, and France. The most striking aspect of Cammilleri Hall at USC are the walls. The pattern of embossed bars reminded me of the Super Mario video game or Morse code dashes in oversized Braille. This design seems purely aesthetic, but the walls themselves are positioned for early reflections of sound back to the middle of the hall (“the more diffuse reflections at lower frequencies are profitable for the late reverberant sound”). But there is something more important still. Bruce Adolphe, composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute, boasts that the walls are soundproof, which is good because, in the room just next door, there are neuroscientists reading data off of fMRI and EEG. Between the artists and neuroscientists, sound that travels and does not travel, the echoing and feedback, make for one of the most resonant environments for interdisciplinary creativity in the country. For founders Antonio and Hanna Damasio, music is essential to the life of the brain.

The serried terraces of a vineyard, unknown.
The “vineyard style” of acoustic engineering, Cammilleri Hall at the Brain and Creativity Institute, USC.

On the other hand, the office space features open glass cubicles, with no barriers to sound. Funded by the university as well as anonymous private donors, the Brain and Creativity Institute, in collaboration with the Thornton School of Music at USC currently supports ten research projects, including “The Brain and Music Program.” Dr. Assal Habibi explained that this project has followed 75 children from Los Angeles schools since the age of 6 (this is the second or third year) in order to gauge the effects of music education on a wide array of mental functions. Of the 75 kids, 1/3 take after-school music, 1/3 take after-school sports, and 1/3 take nothing. The scientists test all subjects in executive functioning skills, musical skills, motor development, and pro-social and emotional development, which is the hallmark of their lab (another project at the Brain and Creativity Institute is called the “Feelings Program”). Music training follows a Venezuelan model called El Sistema, which “emphasizes intensive ensemble participation from the earliest stages, group learning, peer teaching and a commitment to keeping the joy and fun of musical learning and music making ever-present.” Everyone is required to play a string instrument. In the end, the researchers want to share their data with policy-makers, hopefully affecting the way we fund our schools. Music is not a separate component of education; it is integral to the learning process, and there needs to be communication between the arts and sciences to prove its value for children. Hopefully, the work of The Brain and Creativity Institute will reverberate for a long time.


About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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