Music & the Brain: Enter the Scientists

Several years ago, Dr. Cheryl Willman commissioned composer/violinist Marc Neikrug to write a dedication piece for the opening of the University of New Mexico’s new Cancer Center in Santa Fe. She is the director of the Center; he is the artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The piece, premiered in 2010, with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, baritone Matthew Worth, and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, describes itself in the title: Healing Ceremony.

Neikrug, a 25-year Santa Fe resident whose wife is a native American, has long been a believer in music capacity’s to heal – soul and body. Willman, too, is a believer. Fast forward to Aug. 4, 2012, the first of a three-day, first-time symposium titled “Music, the Brain, Medicine and Wellness: A Scientific Dialog.” 
“We are counting on you scientists to legitimize and quantify what we musicians have always known,” Neikrug told a packed house at the opening session, in Santa Fe’s Eldorado Hotel.  “And that is that music’s affect on people is far more than just ‘It sounds nice.’”
Held in conjunction with the festival’s 40th anniversary, the event brought together for the first time some of the nation’s top neuroscientists with musicians and medical personnel.  “I knew that this field was emerging as a real science,” said Neikrug in describing the event’s genesis in a later  interview. “Music therapists know it, musicians know it. The idea was to put everyone together and assess where this field is going and where do we go from here?”
About half of the 200 attendees were musicians, about half were scientists and/or medical professionals. They hailed from 30 states and nine countries — rather a remarkable turnout for a first-time gathering of folks in a just-germinating field. Each of the participating lecturers spoke about their work in that virtual space where music and medicine come together. 
Not that the fields of music and science are strangers – the two have been linked since the days of the Renaissance. Among more recent examples,  19th-century composer Alexander Borodin was a scientist, particularly noted for being the first to link cholesterol to heart disease; Zubin Mehta studied medicine before turning to music; British conductor Jeffrey Tate was a doctor. The Longwood Symphony Orchestra in Boston, comprised of trained musicians, unpaid, who make their living as health-care professionals, is just one of a large number of doctors orchestras in the U.S., according to pediatrician Lisa Wong, the orchestra’s pianist and president. Wong has just published her first book,  “Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Art of Music and Medicine,” a topic she also covered as part of the conference.   (She confessed to once having been part of a rock band called the Septic Shocks.)
Prior to her lecture Wong accompanied Adrian Anantawan, a rising Canadian violinist born without a right hand. At age nine he was fitted with a prosthesis, enabling him to play well enough to get into the Curtis Institute and ultimately earn a Masters Degree from Yale University. Wanting to give something back, Anantawan made a return trip to perform at the rehab center that built his prosthesis (Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Center), which had since established an active music therapy center. Today, he runs the Virtual Chamber Music Initiative out of the Center, bringing together musicians, educators, doctors, and researchers to adapt musical instruments for children with Cerebral Palsy, Spinal Muscular Atrophy and Rett Syndrome.
Anantawan’s story was just one of countless examples of music’s power to heal and to empower the isolated and/or disabled. Petr Janata described his research into how hearing music can stimulate a memory – that phenomenon of hearing a song from, say, our teenage years and remembering the place(s) and people with whom we associate it; how that memory “unfolds like a movie.” He defined the Medical Prefontal Cortex (MPFC) as the place where music, memory, and emotion link and showed a video of an otherwise immobilized or unsteady Parkinson’s patient who, when music was played for her walked in an even, steady gate.
There were several other demonstrations of the links between music and physical movement, along with illustrations of the areas of the brain that are activated by music.  Pamela Heaton, a professor of psychology at the University of London and an expert in music and autism, showed a video of an autistic child who couldn’t speak until, by working with a music therapist who matched the two syllables of Hel-Lo with the pitches of a major third, was able to make sounds – for the first time in his life – and eventually speak in full sentences.  
Aniruddh Patel, a senior fellow at San Diego’s Neurosciences Institute and an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University, discussed the neuro connections between music processing and the brain. His research, along with that of several others at the conference, indicates that musical training can help children learn to read (another reason to put music back in the schools, a mantra of the conference), as can rhythm; that moving together in sync with music increases children’s ability to work together as a team. We saw a video of a cockatiel who couldn’t help himself when he heard music – he had to dance on his perch; Patel reported that the bird had made 13 unique but repeated choreographic moves over the course of his research.
That music aids socialization was a common theme; so was its affect on mood without pharmacological intervention (at which point we were reminded of Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous quote, “there is no difference between music and opium”). We heard that singing soothes not only babies, but cows at milking time; what the brain looks like when one “hears” a smile in someone’s voice; how and why low pitches are more threatening and powerful than high ones; how the major-minor, happy-sad correlation is invalid because it’s completely relative – what is minor in one culture is major in another, so there really is no scientific evidence of the effects of key on the brain.
As neurologist/Dr. Gottfried Schlaug reminded us constantly, “Our challenge is to translate all this data into ways that are useful, so we can artificially induce” the affects of music in the brain. Schlaug — director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory and division chief of Cerebrovascular Diseases at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (and that’s only part of his title) – was among the MDs who has classical music piped into his operating room, a scientifically proven method of a better outcome for the patient (not to mention the surgeon).
The general atmosphere throughout the event, which was punctuated with chamber music concerts in the evening at the nearby Lensic Performing Arts Center, was very, very positive. Contact information was exchanged, stories shared, research notes compared. Neikrug, who had no easy job convincing funders that this was a good way to honor a music festival’s birthday, was very pleased, as was Dr. Willman. 
“I have dreamed about this day for years,” said Neikrug. “I just wanted to give a tiny little push to the back of this giant thing that’s rolling down the hill.”

Susan Elliott (Musical America) / August 14, 2012

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