Sound Health: A Win-Win-Win Program for the Arts and NIH and Patients

I was excited to see the recent news report about the new collaboration between the National Institutes of Health, my old stomping ground, and the Kennedy Center, a locus for my love of opera, to expand and deepen a program called Sound Health, originally begun by the National Symphony Orchestra.  In the NIH announcement of the new collaboration, it notes that “music can get you moving, lift your mood, and even help you recall a memory, but can it improve your health?”  It reminded me of an example of opera in the movies.  The movie is “The Shawshank Redemption” and the opera selection is Sull’aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, heard in the YouTube video below.  One of the inmates in Shawshank Prison manages to play this aria, against the wishes of his captors, over the prison’s loudspeaker system.  We see the calming effect it has on the other inmates and how they stop what they are doing to listen intently.  We don’t know for sure what is going on, but it is clear the music is having a profound effect on the men.  Sound Health is intended to encourage research into the links between music and wellness.  

I am intrigued by how the brain processes music, which is different from how it processes language.  One of the first OperaGene blog posts was on this subject.  The impact of music on brain disease is actually explored in the opera, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, based the book by Oliver Sacks and recently performed by Urban Arias.

Ian McEuen as Dr. S, Jeffrey Beruan as Dr. P, and Emily Pulley as Mrs. P.  Photo by Ryan Maxwell; courtesy of Urban Arias, 2016.

Ian McEuen as Dr. S, Jeffrey Beruan as Dr. P, and Emily Pulley as Mrs. P.  Photo by Ryan Maxwell; courtesy of Urban Arias, 2016.

This new collaboration has been forged by renown opera star, Renee Fleming, who also currently serves as Artistic Advisor at Large for the Kennedy Center.  The program is solidly backed by Deborah Rutter, President of the Kennedy Center, and Dr. Frances Collins, the Director of the NIH. Their announcements state that through this partnership, both institutions will create opportunities to:

  • Expand current levels of knowledge and understanding of how listening, performing, or creating music involves intricate circuitry in the brain that could be harnessed for health and wellness applications in daily life;
  • Explore ways to enhance the potential for music as therapy for neurological disorders across the human lifespan;
  • Identify future opportunities for research; and,
  • Create public awareness of how the brain functions and interacts with music.

A conference, sponsored by KC and NIH, was held at the Kennedy Center on January 26 and 27.  Experts reviewed what is known so far about the relationship between music and wellness.  The talks and discussions covered neural pathways uniquely engaged by music, and neural networks that connect the brain’s music processing system with movement, emotion, and language.  Discussions also included how music is helping patients with Parkinsonism, pain management in cancer patients, and possible implications for autism research.  The program generated enthusiasm for additional research into these and other areas.

Another joint conference titled “Sound Health: Music and the Mind,” is planned for June 2 and 3 at the Kennedy Center.  The conference will feature talks and interactive presentations by leaders studying the connections between neuroscience and music.  The event will be kicked off by a performance of the National Symphony Orchestra.  In the interim, the NSO will continue its performances at the NIH Clinical Center and the Kennedy Center has planned several activities supporting Sound Health prior to the June Conference; you can track these at the following website.

This is all very interesting, but it is also highly significant.  Foremost, of course, is the potential for helping patients with debilitating conditions and for improving the overall health of the general public.  It is also important that NIH is providing its imprimatur and backing for this research; this action alone will spur additional research efforts in these areas.  And finally, support for the arts has not been a priority for sometime in the US and is particularly at risk in the current political and economic climate.  While most of us believe that support of the arts is fundamental for having a citizenry grounded in human values and the human spirit, demonstrating the strong links between music and health can only strengthen the case for public support of the arts.  This new Kennedy Center National Institutes of health collaboration is truly a win-win-win development.


Kennedy Center press release:

Kennedy Center website:

NIH announcement:

YouTube video:

News coverage: