Scientists and Sopranos Partner Up for ‘Music and the Mind’

A recent Kennedy Center program explored creative aging and the brain

Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Music as preventative medicine is an exciting prospect — one that could change the way we live and age in this country.

In a two-day program of events in Washington, D.C. earlier this month called “Sound Health: Music and the Mind,” audiences were guided through an exploration of the human brain and its connection to music through a blend of performance and lecture.

“We are a country of tremendous potential, but we are held back by incredible pain,” said former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. His prescription? A new focus on improving our emotional well-being through music.

Sound Health” is a partnership between The National Institutes of Health and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that was established to better understand the impact of the arts on our minds and bodies. Renee Fleming, the renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor-at-large, performed and moderated the event, along with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Emerging evidence demonstrates that making music — not just listening to it — can have positive effects on healthy adults.

Music’s Important Role in Everyday Lives

The program covered a range of topics, including music’s role in brain health, child development and creative aging.

Growing scientific research and attention to the role music plays in brain health is often seen in our everyday experience — the connection we feel as we listen to music performed in a full auditorium, the escape from stress that happens when we pick up an instrument, the spiritual lift of singing with a community in worship or even the glimpse of a loved one with dementia perking up when hearing a familiar song.

Better understanding these experiences may lead to new therapies, treatments and interventions, according to “Sound Health” organizers. In a session on creative aging, neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel demonstrated that music facilitates movement, activates memories and improves language in people who experience dementia, Parkinson’s disease or stroke.

Emerging evidence demonstrates that making music — not just listening to it — can have positive effects on healthy adults as well, he said. Singers are better able to distinguish sounds (a helpful skill at a crowded cocktail party) and being a musician might protect our brains from cognitive decline.

In “The Future of Music and the Mind” session, Fleming, Collins and Murthy envisioned music programs building connections, healing, hope and health across communities.

“There are places that medicines can’t reach,” said Murthy. “Music has the power to reach people in deep places.”

Watch “The Future of Aging” session below and find others on The Kennedy Center’s YouTube channel.

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By Susan Donley
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