The Kennedy Center was sold out Friday night for a concert titled “Sound Health: Music and the Mind”. Think about that: a program about the effect of music on the developing brain and health sold out the Concert Hall (over 2400 seats) at the Kennedy Center; and people knew ahead of time it would include science! The concert was part of a two-day event whose theme was “Shaping Our Children’s Lives Through Music Engagement”. The audience was peppered with music therapists and music teachers, both groups getting big rounds of applause when they were asked to identify themselves. Overall, the audience loved the show despite having come without knowing exactly what this unique program would entail; exiting the hall, I heard a college-age young woman exclaim, “That was really cool,” and her friend nodded complete agreement.
There are many lessons to be discerned, I think, from the Sound Health concert. One is that education as entertainment sells when properly packaged, and boy was this show properly packaged! This almost two-year old KC/NIH collaboration was initiated and is led by world renown opera singer Renee Fleming and the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Frances Collins, who also served as cohosts for the evening; Ms. Fleming talked science and Dr. Collins sang (and vice versa, of course). CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, also cohosted, but refused to sing, for our benefit he claimed.
Socrates spoke of the powerful influence of music on human development a couple of millennia ago, but today you need data. Thus, the highlight of opening remarks was Dr. Collins’ announcement that the NIH was starting a five-million-dollar program to study the effect of music on health and brain development. NIH/KC had previously sponsored a workshop in January 2017 titled “Research and the Brain: Research Across the Lifespan” which led to a workshop report and an NIH Research Plan. These events are hugely important, not only in providing research funding to scientists working in these fields, but in that the NIH’s imprimatur helps validate an area of research for attracting new, young researchers to a field and attracting the attention of researchers in relevant, adjacent areas; it can create a mushrooming effect for an area of research.
The Sound Health presentations over Friday and Sunday made it clear to me that there is now a consensus that:
Music influences early development of the brain
Training in music improves language skills
Music promotes community and cooperation
Music can be therapeutic for certain conditions now
Music holds promise for treating additional conditions
Trained scientists, tools, and technology currently exist to push this research forward
Scientists are developing new tools and objective measures to study brain function
There is vastly more to learn than has yet been learned
The cast for the concert was a mix of stellar musicians, singers, dancers, and scientists, several of whom led more in-depth, follow up events and demonstrations on Saturday, of which there were many. In fact there were too many performers and presenters to attend every event or cover them in depth. I attended Saturday events on the topics of why music education matters, childhood development and bonding to the beat, and musical creativity. I will try to impart just the flavor of the Sound Health events and a few of its fascinating points.
The musical theme of the event was jazz which fit with its focus on the beat and rhythm. Participating in providing the music was Kennedy Center Artist Director for Jazz, Jason Moran, and musical prodigy, pianist Matthew Whitaker. The concert’s music was kicked off by singer/songwriter Madison McFerrin performing a beautiful and intriguing musical number using her voice in different ways, later joined by spectacular tap dancers Chloe and Maud Arnold who used their tap shoes as mini-drums tapping out the beat. Interestingly, Dr. Collins had shown a film clip of a patient with Parkinson’s that showed the patient’s walking difficulties were ameliorated when he carried a metronome, an effect of the beat. The participating musicians were not there just for musical entertainment, but worked with the scientists to demonstrate the points being made.
One of my favorite reports was provided by Dr. Laurel Trainor of McMaster University who reported on EEG studies showing that the brain’s activation patterns align to the beat of music and her work on how this can influence human interactions: in one experiment moms held their toddlers to their chests while they bounced up and down in sync with music while a research assistant stood facing the pair and bounced either in sync with them or out of sync with them as the children watched. The research assistant then appeared to be hanging clothes on a line in the room and deliberately dropped a clothespin. If the assistant had moved in sync with the music and the mom/child pair, the child was more inclined to help by retrieving the pin for the assistant than if the assistant had bounced out of sync with them. This in sync/out of sync effect also influenced the children’s choices of whom to befriend. Dr. Trainor also led a second day event, “Learning and Bonding to the Beat: Optimizing Your Child’s Development”, which featured guest speaker reports on the Lullaby Project, where mothers are taught to compose a lullaby for their at-risk infants and children, and a neonatal ICU study of the use of vocalizations to calm and nourish premature infants. Members of the DC Youth Orchestra performed and then talked about what music meant to them.
The beat and rhythm of music is a major avenue of research for Dr. John Iversen of the University of California, San Diego. He demonstrated that a disruption of the beat while we are listening can briefly disrupt our thoughts. His research suggests the brain’s processing of our response to rhythm is a two way street between auditory and motor processing, with motor neural processing informing auditory processing (telling us when to expect the next beat) as well the auditory signals informing our movements to be in sync with the rhythm. This means that the motor planning cortex influences what we hear; so I guess this is scientific evidence that muscle memory is a real thing. Ms. Fleming then introduced Mickey Hart, drummer for The Grateful Dead, who is involved in research on the use of rhythm in healing. He brought with him an instrument called the “Beam” bearing the name of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras who developed musical scales; the Beam made ethereal, other worldly sounds, and as far as I know, only he can play. He was joined on stage by virtuoso tabla (a small drum) player Zakir Hussain; together they improvised music for a 15-min film compiled to show a full day in the Amazon rain forest. They were soon joined by Ms. Fleming who provided a wordless vocal to the music. This performance was overall thoroughly weird, but also fascinating and enjoyable.
Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern University studies sound processing by the brain’s auditory nervous system by measuring sound waves. She gave the audience a chance to hear the brain making music. To do this she records brain auditory signaling while the test subject is listening to music. When the brain’s auditory signals are then put through speakers, the music you hear is very similar to what had been played for the test subject. She is using this technology to study auditory signaling in the brains of Northwestern football players who have had concussions; how distorted and noisy the brain’s rendering of music has become is a reflection of the severity of the concussion. She is also following a number of kids over time with her methods and reports that students who have had instruction in music hear sounds more accurately and have better reading and language skills.
Dr. Charles Limb of the University of California, San Francisco is interested in using functional MRI (fMRI) to study the effect of music on the brain, especially from the standpoint of understanding creativity when musicians are improvising. He was joined on stage by freestyle rap artist and creator of Lovestyle Love Supreme, Anthony Veneziale. Mr. Veneziale did an impressive demonstration of creativity: he was given five words suggested by the audience on the spot and quickly sang an improvised segment of rap that cleverly incorporated those words. Dr. Limb had previously made recordings of Mr. Veneziale’s brain patterns when singing a song as written and when doing a freestyle rap. This research showed that areas activated when a musician follows the score includes areas that causes us to put the brakes on ourselves, but when the musician is improvising, more sensory area activation occurs and the inhibitory areas do not show activation. The ability of the brain to change and adapt, called neuroplasticity, was revealed by his studies of brain activation using pianist Matthew Whitaker as a subject. Looking at the activation patterns when Mr. Whittaker was listening to a history lecture versus when he was listening to music gave very different results. His brain showed much greater activation listening to music, as expected, but also revealed was activation in the visual cortex of the brain, not seen when he was listening to the lecture. Mr. Whittaker is severely vision impaired, yet his brain has found a way to make use of his visual cortex when listening to music. Dr. Limb also led the session the following day titled, “The Art of the Spark: Musical Creativity Explored”.
left: Dr. Charles Limb and freestyle rapper Anthony Veneziale. right: Anthony Veneziale and pianist Matthew Whitaker. Photo by Jati Lindsay; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
I attended the session on Saturday hosted by Ms. Fleming and Dr. Collins titled, “Take Note! Why Music Education Matters”, which was opened by inspirational singing by the Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel. A panel of educators, administrators, and scientists joined the hosts to talk about their experiences, which emphasized the sociological aspects of music education. I will mention a couple of points I found most affecting. The hosts talked about their early experiences in music: Ms. Fleming’s parents were high school vocal music teachers and she played the guitar as a teen; Dr. Collins and dad and siblings all played instruments; mom was a playwright. He lived in a house in Shenandoah without running water and playing music was what you did after dinner in those days. He also made the remarkable statement that if you have had intensive musical training before the age of seven that this can be revealed by today’s sophisticated imaging technologies. Dr. Kenneth Elpus of the University of Maryland reported on a study that provided data indicating among other things that students in high school who took music instead of extra STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses were equally successful in getting into prestigious colleges as students only taking the STEM curriculum, and they were equally likely to major in a STEM field in college. The GRAMMY teacher of the year Melissa Salguero demonstrated some techniques she used to get her students involved in music. Dantes Rameau who leads the Atlanta Music Project talked about a young man who he felt had received something from playing music that made him feel good about himself and the world and that would stay with him his entire life.
I should disclose that I worked for the NIH before retiring and starting the OperaGene blog. However, I am writing this report as a music fan, not a scientist, for the moment just savoring my memories of the Sound Health program and accepting at face value all that I was told. Research scientists will look at this work more closely, dissect it and challenge the authors on their experimental design and their data interpretations. That is crucial to separating the real signals from the noise and understanding what the data are telling us and having those findings accepted by the public and policy decision makers, which will be important to the future of music. If you have been concerned that education in the arts, especially music, has been losing favor across the U.S., scientific research stimulated by Sound Health may be coming to the rescue by providing convincing scientific evidence to build the case for its importance. And music may be adding to its impact with science’s help in determining how best to employ music in maximizing the brain’s development and treating its afflictions. Science and the Arts working together, how cool is that!
The Fan Experience: You can enjoy the “Sound Health: Music and the Mind” concert yourself; it is accessible online at this link. You can also access the videos of these Saturday events:
“Take Note! Why Music Education Matters” at this link
“Learning and Bonding to the Beat: Optimizing Your Child’s Development” at this link.
“The Art of the Spark: Musical Creativity Explored” at this link.