Q&As The Good Fight

How Music Heals

A new partnership between the National Institutes of Health and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts explores the many ways music can heal the body and mind.

It has long been suspected that music can strengthen and improve the body and mind. But it is only in recent decades, with advancements in brain measuring technologies like fMRIs, that science has been able to prove how. One recently launched initiative, which straddles the border between the scientific and creative worlds, hopes to educate and inspire more research into the topic. Called Sound Health: Music and the Mind, it explores how listening to, performing or creating music involves brain circuitry that can be harnessed to improve health and well-being. It is a partnership between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Perfoming Arts, a renowned creative arts institution in Washington D.C.

Heavily involved in the initiative is renowned soprano Renée Fleming, a 2013 National Medal of Arts winner and artistic advisor to the Kennedy Center (most recently, she sang at John McCain’s funeral). “The first goal is to move music therapy forward as a discipline,” she says of the initiative. “The second is to educate the public and enlighten people about the power of music to heal.”

In supporting the initiative, Fleming has been giving talks about it at her performances (nineteen thus far), often including local music therapists or researchers. She has also taken part in a brain imaging experiment focused on creativity and improvisation, where she spent hours inside an fMRI machine under the guidance of an NIH researcher. It was the exact kind of research which Sound Health encourages. In the machine, she was given three different instructions: to sing, to imagine singing, and to listen to music. “In my case the findings were a little bit surprising because the most powerful of the three in terms of brain activation was imagining singing,” she says.

We reached out to Fleming and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins to hear more about this fascinating project.

What are some findings or impacts of the initiative thus far?

Francis Collins

Francis Collins: Over the last few years, I’ve been hearing some interesting reports about researchers using music to improve people’s health. But these were mostly anecdotes, and what was really needed for the field to grow and expand was scientific evidence. NIH, with its mission to improve health and ample funding, is in an ideal position to help build that evidence. And the fact that Renée Fleming and the Kennedy Center were interested in the intersection between music and health was a good indication to me that this topic could get people excited about scientific research and the future of medicine. So we joined forces to create this important partnership.

Music can help Parkinson’s patients walk with a steady gait, help stroke survivors recover the ability to speak, and give cancer patients relief from chronic pain.

Out first goal with the Sound Health partnership was to educate each other and the public on what we’ve learned from research in this area so far. We held an unprecedented scientific workshop at the NIH with some of the world’s leading music and health researchers. Some were investigating how music could help Parkinson’s patients walk with a steady gait, help stroke survivors recover the ability to speak, and give cancer patients relief from chronic pain. It was clear that there was some exciting research in this space.  We’ve since held two public events at the Kennedy Center to share this science with everyone. You can see recordings of the scientific workshop on the NIH website and read a summary here.  Recordings of some segments of this year’s Kennedy Center event are posted on YouTube.

Based on what we’ve learned, the NIH is supporting future research on this promising topic. We’ve announced the availability of $5 million in funding in fiscal year 2019 to support a wide range of research into the effects of music therapy on various health conditions. Because that research hasn’t been done yet, the most exciting results are yet to come.

How is music beneficial to young minds?

Renée Fleming.

Renée Fleming: Music activates more parts of the brain than any other activity, which is amazing. For education one of the things they’ve proven is that children benefit from learning a musical instrument; some of the reasons are obvious: the discipline, the practice. But the scientific piece is that eye-hand coordination through the ear helps them develop academically, with better aural comprehension and better academic outcomes overtime. It seems to be very powerful. It’s a fascinating project and there’s an endless number of things we can explore with it.

What do you hope the initiative will accomplish?

FC: I hope Sound Health will help determine whether and how music could be an effective part of a doctor’s toolkit. At the NIH, our goal is to better understand how our bodies work, then to use that understanding to help people live longer, healthier lives.  And we do that through research. We just issued these funding opportunity announcements about music and health to encourage scientists to submit their best research ideas.

I also hope that our partnership with the Kennedy Center and the National Endowment for the Arts will get people excited about this topic and the role science plays in it. So many people have made music a part of their daily lives, and they’re curious about why it has this profound effect on them. The public events at the Kennedy Center, which you can watch online, will help you learn more about yourself and share in our excitement about how music may play an important role in medicine.

What are some questions you’ve always had about music and its impacts?

RF: This potential of music to connect us with our emotional life. That’s valuable and not really well understood. Also the connection to music and memory. Our senses are hardwired to be used in terms of memory and music is one of the most powerful of these triggers.

As a health official, what interests you most about music and its impact on the mind and body?

FC: I’m fascinated by the ways that music overlaps with other processes in the brain. When you sing or play an instrument, it doesn’t just activate one part of your brain: a whole constellation of brain areas becomes active. And some of these musical areas are partially shared with activities like speaking, which if disrupted can have devastating consequences.  An amazing thing about this overlap is that when the normal speech pathway in the brain is damaged, music can sometimes be used as an alternate path.

When you sing or play an instrument, it doesn’t just activate one part of your brain: a whole constellation of brain areas becomes active.

This finding inspired something called “melodic intonation therapy.” When someone has a stroke that damages the left side of the brain, it can cut off the normal language pathway and make it hard for the person to speak. Therapists will work with stroke patients to sing phrases like “I am thirsty” to use that alternate, musical path instead of the damaged one. It takes a lot of work and practice, like using a different muscle, but stroke survivors have used this technique to learn to speak again.

Scientists have been working hard to understand the complex pathways in the human brain. And here is a payoff where we might use these pathways to improve mental health without drugs or brain stimulation. What’s more, music doesn’t just overlap with language: it also shares brain areas with movement, memory, motivation and reward. These things are hugely important to mental health, and researchers are trying to use this same concept of an alternate pathway to address new categories of mental disorders. If they’re successful, that would be a significant breakthrough for patients around the world.