Music and the Brain, A Love Story of Two UCF Professors

Music and the Brain, A Love Story of Two UCF Professors

When violinist Ayako Yonetani played the final movement from the Violin Partita in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, a man who had spent more than three decades studying the brain knew he had just surrendered his heart.

“I had never heard something so beautiful,” said UCF neuroscience professor Kiminobu Sugaya. “I didn’t know then how difficult it is to play. The Chaconne is one of the most challenging pieces of music to play and I think Ayako’s is the best in the world. That did it for me. I knew then, she was the one.”

Seven years later the scientist and the UCF music professor are married, have two toy poodles they spoil rotten and have started a partnership that blends her love of music and his passion for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

They teach the Music and the Brain class in the Burnett Honors College – a class that fills up within a few minutes of registration opening each Spring semester. They also put on several local concerts that blend short science lectures about neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease with her live performances. They have a concert series at the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park that’s in its 10th year. Sugaya has been known to occasionally join her playing digital piano music via his laptop. They next perform at the museum on March 6 and at their home on March 20.

And because they are both passionate about their fields of study, they started joint research looking at the impact certain music has on the frontal lobe of the brain. They’ve found that classical music such as Mozart increases brain activity in that lobe by up to 50 percent. Certain harmonic combinations seem to trigger the activity, even when the person listening has never heard the music before.

While a scientist and an artist may seem like an unlikely match because they come from such different worlds, it seems to work for this happy couple.

Perhaps it is in part because Sugaya has taken the same rigorous scientific approach he uses in his lab to understanding music. While he’s well known for his work in stem cell therapies for neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and ALS, he’s done his fair share of research into classical composers such as Bach and Mozart. When he learns about the structure of melody and harmonies he is fascinated by the intricate nature of the music.

Yonetani is a rock star in her own field. She started playing the violin at the age of five. At ten, she made her solo debut after she won the Japan national competition at the age of 9. She was the youngest person to do so. Later, she made her United States debut as a concertmaster with the New York String Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Yonetani received her bachelor, masters, and doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School and plays around the world to sold-out concerts.

When it comes to their personal life, Yonetani said she and Sugaya aren’t about fancy dinners or exotic hobbies. They enjoy the simple things – like just being together whether eating at the food court at a mall or hanging out at home. They’re just regular people, she said.

“We are both like kids at home,” she said. “We spend a lot of time together doing things together and also with our two toy poodles. We talk about all kinds of subjects, all in Japanese.”

And when they get the chance and calendars align, they like to travel. Their honeymoon in 2012 was spent in Hokkaido, Japan, after she finished a concert series and Sugaya wrapped up an international science meeting in Tokyo. They spent a week visiting the local hot springs, enjoying the stunning natural beauty and “just being.”

“I think we are a good match because we enrich each other’s lives,” Sugaya said. “She introduced me to a world of music and I introduced her to a world of science. We compliment and support each other.”