Featured Scholar: Billy Conte

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Featured Scholar: Billy Conte
Watson, Sara
Place of Publication:
Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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Journal of

Volume 10, Issue 4
Summer 2009



Archives Billy Conte
Understanding the Reception of Schoenberg's Music from a
Scholar Profiles Neuroscientist's Perspective

Contact t Staff To get a full understanding of Billy Conte's article, "Understanding the Reception of
Schoenberg's Music from a Neuroscientist's Perspective", take a moment out of your day
University Scholars Program and search on YouTube for "Arnold Schoenberg", the Austrian-born classical music
composer whose early work was denounced by the Nazis as "degenerate" and who
Undergraduate Research
himself became a pioneering music theorist. From the list of offerings related to
Schoenberg, select "Piano Concerto op. 42 (excerpt)." Play the video: if you are not
Search: already familiar with Schoenberg's composition, you will soon get an idea of what it's all
about. In one word, you could describe it as discordant. If you felt more strongly about

Enter Search Terms Schoenberg's creations, you would probably call them "unpleasant."
Enter Search Terms G
Even today, when atonality has become enmeshed with mainstream music, Schoenberg's
artistic output is challenging; or, as a less enthusiastic YouTube watcher/listener put it,
"This sounds like the soundtrack to (Alfred Hitchcock's classic film) Psycho." Another
commentator posted a more immediate critique: "Hmm, I guess that my ears aren't
ready for his music."

Billy Conte, a recent University of Florida graduate, took a more academic response.
Conte decided to investigate why people have such a violent reaction to Schoenberg's
music, and the neuroscience behind that particularly human--and ultimately subjective--

There is no doubt that the breadth and depth of research occurring amongst
undergraduates at the University of Florida is quite staggering. What is even more
phenomenal is the way that undergrad students at UF are synthesizing their research in a
variety of areas to open up new avenues of "real world", highly applicable academic
inquiry. Billy Conte's article is yet another example of the work that is being done by
many in the student body.

Conte, who graduated in May 2009 with a neuroscience major and a minor in music
literature and theory, is certainly one of UF's most outstanding undergraduate students.
Alongside his contributions to a number of groups on campus, including HHMI Science for
Life, the chemistry club, the chemistry outreach program, Golden Key international
honors society, and the environmental health and safety committee, Conte has other
remarkable achievements. Working in the McKnight Brain Institute, he has used the
experience and skills he has garnered to work in two labs where, amongst other duties,
he researches the use of stem cells for the treatment of epilepsy; Conte is shadowing a
neurosurgeon, learning the finer details of a possible future career.

The Journal of Undergraduate Research recently sat down with Billy Conte to discuss his
experience at Florida, how he came to be involved in studying Schoenberg and
neuroscience, and what the future holds.

JUR: How did you come to connect your interest and study of neuroscience
with musicology?
Billy Conte: It started with a class I did where we listened to Schoenberg, and then (grew
out of) an independent study project I did for my minor (in musicology). My professor
had mentioned some of the controversies that surrounded the early 20th century
premiers of Schoenberg's music. I started reading into this and I thought that I could do
something with neuroscience because that's where my expertise is. It then transformed
into this project.

JUR: You said that you have a great love for music, which is shown in your
study of musicology. But what was it that drew you to neuroscience?
Conte: I knew that when I came to college I wanted to do research. I have been doing it
for four years now, but I knew after the first year; I became really addicted to the field of
neuroscience and now it looks like it really might be my career.

JUR: Do you think that you will be able to incorporate your passion for music?
Conte: Yes, definitely. There is a lot of interest in music medicine and science. There are
also a lot of ways that the fields of ways the fields of neuroscience and musicology (could
be) connected; and it is clear that music has an effect on our well-being and even why
we enjoy music. Even though there is a lot of research, we still don't know anything
about how to approach it.

JUR: Was there something in particular that drew you to the work of
Conte: Well, to be honest, I really don't like the music of Schoenberg very much. So, I

guess my first question was to figure out why I don't like this music; and then after that,
I wanted to think about why we have musical preferences. Initially, I looked into the
controversies surrounding performances of Schoenberg's music--how audiences reacted
so violently to the music (because it was atonal). I thought about how I didn't like
Schoenberg's music, but I didn't react violently to it, as audiences did during the

JUR: Can you see any parallels to music styles today? That is, in the way that
people react to music?

Conte: Well, one of the difficulties of (understanding the effect of Schoenberg's music) is
that there is a lot more atonality in music today than there was in Schoenberg's time.
One of my theories is that you have to be exposed to (atonal) music from a young age to
enjoy that kind of music. A lot of rock and pop music has a lot of atonality in it today and
we all enjoy it... We develop a taste of it from an early age.

JUR: Do you think there could be a genetic component to this-- that we have
developed a predilection for atonality?

Conte: It's a really debatable topic, but I honestly don't think so. from birth, the brain
pretty much has a genetic ability that allows plasticity to occur. I think this is when these
preferences develop, right before birth, to change cognitive experience. I don't think it's
genetic-- I mean it could be, but it would be very hard to isolate the genes from the
environment, in this case.

JUR: Hypothetically, how might you test this? And what would be the

Conte: You would have to get identical twins who were separated at birth and grew up in
completely different environments... It's really difficult because even in the way people
talk there are atonal patterns that could be tangentially applied to music. You would have
to have someone living in a vacuum, away from popular culture.

- Christopher Garland

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