Music, Music Therapy and Neuroscience: Imagining Improvised and Intentional Collaborations

06/08/2017 05:04 pm ET

Imagine… Imagine a dinner party where a renowned opera singer (soprano Renée Fleming, who also happens to be an Artistic Advisor at Large for the Kennedy Center) and a doctor (Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, also a guitarist, singer and composer) meet. One thing leads to another and they find themselves singing with the guests, three of whom are Supreme Court Justices, no less. They hatch a plan to have their institutions collaborate on music and the brain to “amplify the work being done in this field.”

Their collaboration builds upon community outreach efforts of the National Symphony Orchestra, including performances at the NIH Clinical Center over the past several years, broadens the scope and brings together the “diverse artistic resources of the Kennedy Center with the scientific, clinical, and research expertise of the NIH.”

Imagine… Imagine the past, when a nurse named Florence Nightingale noticed that music comforted the solders for whom she was caring (in the 1800s), when the first degree program for music therapists began (1944), and when the first professional music therapy association began (1950). Fast forward to the more recent past when music therapy leaders gained unprecedented participation in the US Special Committee on Aging hearing, Forever Young: Music and Aging (1991) and when several expert music therapists were honored to guest lecture at the Library of Congress (2011)!

The big event has arrived. It is June 2-3, 2017.

Imagine… Imagine the present, with concert halls and theaters full of musicians, neuroscientists, music therapists, researchers, clients, their family members, general patrons and lovers of the arts, and more.

Imagine leading neuroscientists onstage with the National Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Daniel Levitin explains that the brain is a “pattern detector” and music is full of patterns and motifs. We count how many times we hear the major third theme (short, short, short, long) in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Dr. Charles Limb shows us fMRI images (a neuroimaging technique) of Renée Fleming’s brain while she is singing and imagining singing The Water Is Wide. We learn that more parts of the brain are activated when singing or imagining one is singing than when speaking!

Dr. Levitin elaborates on why music matters. He refers to oxytocin as the “social salience” chemical, remarking that more oxytocin is produced when we listen and/or play collectively. In fact, a review by Inga Neumann states that oxytocin's impact on "pro-social behaviors" and emotional responses contributes to relaxation, trust and psychological stability.

Imagine… Imagine the present, where over 7,000 Board Certified MusicTherapists blend art and science, develop therapeutic relationships, and systematically deliver music experiences to promote recovery, resilience, and enhanced quality of life, to name only a few positive outcomes, and music therapy researchers are adding to our 70-year evidence base to demonstrate the efficacy and effectiveness of our interventions.

In a coma following a snowboarding accident, Forrest Allen’s first response to music came in his second music therapy session with music therapist Tom Sweitzer, when he moved his pinky. After 29 surgeries and a few years of music therapy, he is now able to sing, speak, dance, and isolate his fingers to play the guitar. He powerfully exclaims that “Music therapy saved my life!” Producer Susan Koch has made a documentary titled, Music Got Me Here, about his experiences.

Bridging clinical music therapy and research, Dr. Wendy Magee cites a 2017 Cochrane Review on music for acquired brain injury to support Forrest’s amazing progress. She says, “Music has a hotline to emotion and motivation…What we hear influences how we move… Music changes brain structure after neurological damage.”

Jordan Cochran bravely tells his son’s story. Born 8 weeks premature, Joshua was later diagnosed with autism and observed to avoid many sensory experiences, particularly those having to do with his hands. He was, and continues to be, extremely musical. CJ Shiloh, his music therapist, reveals how she systematically desensitized Josh and provided affirmation of his progress. She focused on areas such as use of his hands to play instruments, coping skills, communication and quality of life.

Dr. Blythe Lagasse outlines music therapy research supporting clinical applications for individuals with autism. Music therapy assists in social engagement, social interaction, joint attention, parent child relationships, communication skills, social emotional reciprocity, self-regulation, and attention!

Dr. Deforia Lane provides stirring examples of music therapy in medical settings: Through therapeutic singing, a gentleman vocalizes “This Little Light of Mine” after a stroke. A young man with sickle cell anemia creates a rap with his music therapist, facilitating appropriate expression of feelings. Dr. Lane emphasizes that “a song can be a connecting point for anyone, any time, any place.” Indeed, Dr. Sheri Robb works with teens and young adults undergoing stem cell transplants to create therapeutic music videos to promote positive coping skills and build resiliency. She and her team tailor music experiences to reduce stressful environments and develop more supportive environments.

Imagine… Imagine the audience improvising on the spot, weaving these music therapy stories together with Ben Folds, a gifted musician, composer, educator, and advocate for music education and music therapy.

Now dare to imagine the future… At the June 2nd concert, Jussie Smollett performed John Lennon’s song Imagine. The next afternoon Ben Folds performed his song You Are Capable of Anything during the panel on Music Therapy Breakthroughs. These performers, together with numerous other speakers, have inspired us.

Saturday afternoon Dr. Francis Collins and 19th US Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, brainstormed about what we can learn from studying music’s interaction with the brain and what potential implications might be for music therapy.

Dr. Murthy spoke very eloquently: “We are a country that has tremendous potential, but are being held back by pain. I'm not talking just about physical pain; I'm talking about a deeper, emotional pain…...I recognized pretty quickly…there are some places that medicines cannot reach. There are parts of us that can’t be accessed with traditional therapies. We need a different tool to get there. We need a different language... What is so beautiful about music is that music is a different language. It has a power to reach people in deep places where sometimes speech, or even touch, can’t.” He continued, “The goal should not be to just be free of mental illness but to be at a peak state of emotional well being… We have to include music and the arts in our toolbox for working toward improved emotional wellbeing of our country… We need to create a nation that is as good at prevention as at treating illness.”

“Imagine”-that’s our motif. Through this historical new partnership, let us continue to imagine and work together …In this vein, Dr. Francis Collins and Renée Fleming described their “Sound Health: Music and the Mind” initiative in a recent Journal of the American Medical Association article. They noted, “Music therapists have generated evidence for the therapeutic effects of active engagement with music for an ever-growing list of indications. Future goals are now to connect the effects of music on the brain with mechanistic insights from biomarkers and other approaches” to better understand “how music therapy interventions may be working and enhance their efficacy and generalizability.”

To learn more or to listen/watch to all the workshops presented on June 3rd, click here.

Selected references:

Magee, W. L., ,Clark, I.,Tamplin, J., & Bradt, J. (2017). Music interventions for acquired brain injury. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2017 (1), 20;1. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006787.pub3.

Neumann, I. D. (2008). Brain oxytocin: A key regulator of emotional and social behaviors in both females and males. Journal of Neuroendocrinology. 2008 June; 20 (6): 858-65.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
CONVERSATIONS