Sound Health: Music and the Mind

Nicky Penttila
June 9, 2017

cartoon of a brain on music

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center for the Arts have teamed up to explore the connections among music, the brain, and human wellness. The idea for the “Sound Health” partnership came up in conversations between NIH director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor Renée Fleming. In March NIH hosted a science workshop, where researchers shared what they know about sound and sense with Fleming and other musicians, scientists, and music therapists. This past weekend, they moved to the Kennedy Center for a shared performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and a day of talk and music-making for the general public.

Bone flute from Geissenklösterle, a cave in Germany. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

“Music is a critical part in understanding how the brain works,” Collins said on Friday. It’s likely that early people made music before developing formal language—we’ve found  flutes that are more than 35,000 years old. “It’s critical to understanding” how the oldest circuits in our brains work, and it can add “new and stronger scientific basis” to the range of techniques that music therapists use to help people recover from stroke, trauma, chronic pain, and other maladies.

All the Saturday events except a kids’ movement workshop were recorded; I’m including them here. They are all worth a watch or two, with engaging scientists talking interspersed with great musicians performing. Together they add up to more than seven hours, so take your time! I’m listing them in the order of the day, but if you want the general overview, skip down to “The Future of Music and the Mind” (but that is the only one without a musical performance).

Music and Childhood Development

“Making sense of sound is very important for learning,” says Nina Kraus, Ph.D., of Northwestern University. It is “one of the most complex and computationally delicate things we ask our brains to do,” involving the cognitive, sensorimotor, and the reward networks, at least. “Music is the jackpot” both for discovering how our brains work and for training ourselves to be better learners, she said. “Music education should be a part of every child’s education,” not just because they’re making music but because it improves other school skills, too. Some skills sharpened through playing music, such as hearing a specific conversation in a crowded room of chatting people, will carry on through our lifetimes, even if we stopped playing or singing decades earlier. (See also her website, brainvolts.)

Kraus is joined by Amy, Anton, Duncan, and Lucy, musicians in the D.C. Youth Orchestra, who perform Telemann’s Concerto for four violins in G major and speak about what playing music means to them. As Duncan puts it, “Music brings you a gift.”

Breakthroughs with Music Therapy: Recovery, Resilience & Quality of Life

Music therapy is “a blending of both art and science, grounded in research,” said Sheri Robb, Ph.D., at Indiana University. “Through technological advances like brain imaging, and interdisciplinary research collaborations, we’re learning more about how and why music therapy interventions work.” Her talk is short, allowing time for a series of patients and their therapists to describe their experiences working to improve their health and daily lives. Between each group, musician Ben Folds improvises at the piano. This session was sold out, so I watched it via livestream, and their stories still made me cry twice, so be prepared.

The Future of Music and the Mind

Former US surgeon general Vivek Murthry, M.D., joined NIH’s Francis Collins and Kennedy Center’s Renée Fleming to talk about where we are and where we are going in studying music and wellness.

Why music neuroscience now? Advances in scientific tools allow us to “visualize” the brain, even as a person is playing music, Collins said. Scientists also have recognized that what music therapists “have been doing is pretty interesting to us,” especially how it can reach people who aren’t helped in other ways. “We are going to cure cancer along the way, but people with cancer [and others] are needing healing in many ways,” he said.

Fleming spoke of one personal finding after she spent two hours in an fMRI scanner singing and thinking about singing: It takes more energy for her to imagine singing than singing itself.

As surgeon general, Murthry traveled throughout the United States and found the country “has tremendous potential, but we are being held back by pain,” physical, mental, and emotional. We have to address the core health issue: emotional well-being, and “music is a powerful tool for promoting emotional well-being.” One treatment could be music. “Music and meditation both have the common effect of quieting the noise in our lives,” Murthry said. “We have a lot of noise in our lives.”

Collins also announced the start of a prospective study of long-term health and fitness that aims to enroll one million volunteers. We’ll write more about that when enrollment opens, this fall.

Creative Aging

“Making music is a strong driver of neural plasticity,” said Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D., one of the researchers in the new field of musical neuroscience. For example, when we listen to a beat, there is activation across our brain, in motor systems as well as our auditory ones. He reviewed research on rhythm, music’s effects on memory, and its lasting effect on hearing sound in noise. “We’re finally beginning to understand music’s biological power,” he said.

Joining him are Renée Fleming and the Different Strokes for Different Folks choir, made up of people who have used making music to recover from the effects of stroke. Choir members sing a song they wrote and also talk about their personal recovery journeys; the audience joined in for the last song—feel free to sing along.

Jazz, Creativity, and the Brain

“Humans are hard-wired not only to hear music, but to create music,” said Charles Limb, M.D., citing the aforementioned 35,000-year-old flutes. The first music was probably improvised, since language and writing were yet to be invented. It’s an everyday act to be creative, to solve problems and see patterns; it keeps our brains sharp. Limb argues that “artistic creativity is a neurologic product that can be examined using rigorous scientific methods,” which he applies, for one example, to musicians improvising on special piano keyboards while being scanned in a brain scanner (partly with a Dana Foundation grant). “There is so much here for scientists to learn” and share with people, Limb said.

Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer played together and separately, and joined Limb to describe how they create and to ask him questions, too. “It’s not about creating something new, but creating something true,” Iyer said. Spalding added, in improv “the mission is co-creating… you’re asking for the truth, onstage.” This was the most wide-ranging session, and a fitting end to the day.

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