People who learn music are known to have better sound and cognitive
processing abilities and often perform better on both music- and
Does the method of how one learns to play music impact how the brain
processes it? Many musicians are not formally trained and learn to play
using videos, books or by ear. Is it the formal music training process
or simply the act and ability of playing music that gives musicians an
intellectual edge on certain tasks over non-musicians?
New spring graduate Emily Alexander is working to answer these
questions. The Kippens, N.L., native is among the almost 200 Grenfell
Campus students who will graduate at convocation ceremonies in Corner
Brook on May 17.
Hearing and neuroimaging
Her research has primarily taken place in the Cognitive Aging and
Auditory Neuroscience (CAAN) laboratory, under the supervision of Dr.
Ben Zendel, Canada Research Chair in Aging and Auditory Neuroscience.
“The CAAN lab provided an incredible opportunity for me to get
involved with research, and I was already interested in hearing and neuroimaging, so it was a natural fit,” said Ms. Alexander.
Ms. Alexander’s honours thesis research is about differences in
auditory processing (how the brain processes sound) between formally
trained and self-taught musicians.
Hear her talk about her research here.
Essentially, she investigated whether informally trained, self-taught
musicians show similar benefits as formally trained musicians compared
to non-musicians. She measured auditory processing to understand speech
in noise, detecting a bad note in a melody and automatic auditory
detection of pitch change (automatic processing) using
She found that there were hearing advantages for self-taught
musicians but they were different than the advantages for formally
trained musicians. These findings support the idea that individualized
music training could be used as a foundation to develop music-based,
auditory rehabilitation programs.
Ms. Alexander recently presented her research at a recent Science
Atlantic Psychology conference and will take part in the Canadian
Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science conference in St.
John’s this July.
She has also devoted her time to mental health advocacy, including involvement with the Mental Health Commission of Canada
as a youth council member, where she contributes to national mental
health policy analysis and other related projects. She also volunteers
with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the advisory board on youth matters for the Networks of Centers of Excellence of Canada.
Dr. Zendel says Ms. Alexander is a hard-working student who has shown
“amazing” dedication to her research project — so much so that she
began her research six months before her thesis work was supposed to
“She did this because her research questions were complex and
required a large number of participants to undergo a long testing
session,” he said. “Not only did she collect a huge data set, but she
did so with the care and attention to detail that will allow us to
publish her findings in a high-impact, peer-reviewed journal.”
The significance of Ms. Alexander’s work was recognized though her
recruitment by five universities for master’s programs. At Dalhousie
University in Halifax, N.S., she was nominated for the prestigious pre-doctoral Killam Scholarship.
“In the end, however, I accepted a position at the University of
Toronto, where I will start my master’s in psychology in September,” she
“I will be working with Dr. Claude Alain, at the Rotman Research
Institute, where he specializes in hearing and is an EEG expert. I’m
excited to work at RRI and about the opportunity to conduct auditory
neuroscience research in a world-class hospital research setting, with a
wealth of neuroimaging equipment available.”
Dr. Alain was Dr. Zendel’s PhD supervisor, and Ms. Alexander is
confident that she will enjoy the positive supervisor-graduate student
relationship Dr. Zendel did.
‘Support, advice and encouragement’
“I’m very grateful for all of the support, advice and encouragement
I’ve received from many faculty and staff at Grenfell throughout this
entire process, especially from within the psychology department and
from my referees,” she said.
Ms. Alexander has received a grant to spend the summer continuing
work with Dr. Zendel and will work on two manuscripts for publication
based on her thesis research.
After completing her master’s at the University of Toronto, she will
go directly into a doctoral program, for which she’s already been
offered funding. Her eventual goal is to teach, after she takes a few
detours to travel for leisure.