Story by Cynthia Overbeck Bix, Photography by Nancy Rubin
“I need to be busy and engaged. I used to say, when I wake up in the morning, I have to decide who I am. These days, it’s more like I have to decide if I am!”
Current interests: Author; pianist; UC Berkeley instructor and lecturer
Career: Adjunct Professor, Department of Music, UC Berkeley; Professor of Music and Urban Education, AI Lab, & Urban Studies, MIT
Along with a ready laugh, Jeanne displays the energy and intellectual engagement of someone half her age. She is as excited as ever about her lifelong subjects of study—music cognition and cognitive science. Jeanne’s life, work, and music are all of a piece.
My work has been interdisciplinary, in music and cognitive behavioral science. At the University of Minnesota I was a music major, but I really hated what was going on in the music department, particularly in music theory.
In the 1940s I came to UC Berkeley as a graduate student to study with the composer Roger Sessions. In his analysis class, I saw that a piece of music was like a living organism, or a complex machine. I found that very exciting. Studying a piece of music not to play it but to hear everything that was going on in the piece. That changed what I thought I could do with myself.
I began thinking seriously about the nature of musical knowledge. I’ve developed that study since then, as an instructor and in my books, including The Mind Behind the Musical Ear. I’ve also developed a software program that helps users learn how music works.
I think having my own children got me interested in how learning takes place. When my children were young, I and other mothers started a Montessori school in Chicago. There is very interesting music stuff among the Montessori materials, such as the bells, which I wound up using as part of my research material.
At MIT, I started a program in 1985 called The Laboratory for Making Things. I was particularly interested in kids who were very good using their hands but failing in school. We wanted to understand more about the knowledge they had, so that maybe we could help them to do better in school. Even at that point, there were Apple 2e computers in our lab, and I had kids moving between making stuff with their hands and making stuff with the computer.
These days I teach a course at UC Berkeley in music cognition. People ask, what’s that? My stock answer: It’s the nature of the knowledge that you’re making use of when you know how to make sense of the music all around you.
On being a musician
I’ve been performing on the piano since I was 8 years old. I was a considered a prodigy. I hated being one, because I was isolated. I got out of school early and didn’t play with other kids. I had to practice the piano. When I was 18, I went to New York and studied with the great pianist Artur Schnabel. I studied for two full years, and then in and out.
I’m still playing chamber music. If I don’t organize that, then I tend not to play. I play with different people. Living across the street from me is a very good violinist. So we get together from time to time to play. My repertoire is Schubert, Haydn—and Beethoven to some extent.
People often say, “Oh, are you still playing?” That seems like a weird question, because, how could I stop? It’s not as if there’s a moment when I’ll stop playing. I play a little less these days, it’s true, but not for any particular reason.
On staying active
I teach one undergraduate course on music cognition each semester at UC. I drive myself there twice a week, and I hold office hours on campus. I’ve also been going to Israel every year to teach at Tel Aviv University. I give a talk here, or a talk there.
For exercise, I walk my dog once a day—twice a day on the weekends. I go to a trail in Tilden Park.
I need to be busy and engaged. The good thing about having a schedule is, you know what you’re going to do next. Without a schedule, I could lie down and read the New Yorker, or whatever.
On new horizons
These days I’m mostly writing. I have a relatively new book out called Discovering the Musical Mind, 2014, Oxford University Press. And I get asked to write various articles or give talks. There are still so many things I want to write about!