The Science of Music & Healing Takes Center Stage at Chamber Fest
Advances in brain science and music therapy will be explored at an innovative 40th annual Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival symposium
Fusing his passion and his profession proved to be a no-brainer for Aniruddh “Ani” Patel, the Esther J. Burnham Senior Fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California. “I had kept my two passions—biology and music—separate throughout most of my life,” Patel says, during a phone interview from his San Diego office. “In college, it dawned on me one day that maybe there could be a way to study music from a biological standpoint. So I started looking for ways to use the principles and techniques of biology to unpack this amazing phenomenon that is music: just howdowe turn simple sound waves into this incredible emotional experience that we have?”
That probing question, and many others, will be on the minds of scientists, physicians, musicians, and music therapists when the 40th annual Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, and Gabrielle’s Angels Foundation for Cancer Research present “Music, the Brain, Medicine, and Wellness: A Scientific Dialogue,” a three-day scientific symposium in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The ambitious symposium, held August 4–6, during the third week of the monthlong chamber-music festival, will present the latest scientific research regarding the impact of music on the developing brain, cognition, language, memory, and emotion; the use of music to promote healing in patients with serious medical conditions, including cancer, neurological diseases, and developmental disorders; and the influence of music on the well-being of individuals and their communities.
The symposium will include public and private sessions for the scientific and medical community. Among those participating in the symposium are Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at Berklee College of Music in Boston; David Huron, the head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory at the Center for Cognitive Science and the School of Music at Ohio State University; and Robert Zatorre, director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research at the Montreal Neurologic Institute at McGill University in Montreal, Canada; to name a few.
The musicians joining the panels include Marc Neikrug, artistic director of the chamber-music festival; Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic and festival artist in residence; and violinists Arnold Steinhardt and Harvey de Souza, among others.
“One purpose of the symposium is to get the word out to broader audiences who aren’t themselves specialists about this research,” Patel says. “In the past decade, we’ve just seen an explosion of research on music and the brain addressing a whole range of questions about music from a new perspective.”
The research extends far beyond the pop science of the so-called Mozart Effect, the notion that playing music to a baby in utero can increase a child’s intelligence or jump-start musical abilities. Audiences are promised an intensive cross-disciplinary exchange among renowned musicians and those scientists, physicians, and music therapists leading the world’s research on the influence of music on the brain, medicine, and wellness. The panelists hope not only to define the current state of the science, but also to identify the most important questions for future collaborative research and its clinical applications, through presentations, demonstrations, and concert performances.
These are by no means new topics for discussion: evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin theorized that music predated language. “I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex,” Darwin wrote in 1871 in The Descent of Man.
“That’s still being debated,” Patel says.
Of course, these days, scientists have the added advantage of powerful magnetic resonance imaging tools that can detect activity in those areas of brain stimulated by music. The results of those tests are being applied to studies that may help facilitate the recovery of stroke victims, aid in communication with dementia patients, bolster the learning abilities of autistic children, and assist those afflicted with Parkinson’s to facilitate their movement.
And the research has far-reaching implications for music educators and policy makers.
“The most exciting development in the field is that recent research shows that learning a musical instrument has an impact on other brain systems, not just on how good a musician you are, but also how it impacts your processing of language, how it impacts your ability to pay attention to things in general, and the fact that music is a powerful driver of neurobiological change,” Patel says. “We now know that the brain changes its structure throughout life—it used to be thought that the brain structure was fixed and all you could do was lose neurons. That picture has been completely turned on its head.
“We now know that this amazing organ has lifelong elasticity and our ability to change its structure and function, to some degree, is a function of its experience and how you use it. Music may be one of the most powerful drivers of that change because of its links to emotions and its rewards and what it demands of the brain in terms of the complex structure and the patterns and everything else.
“It’s really exciting to think about the fact that not only listening to music, but playing music can change the brain.”
Research that shows music helps to promote cognitive and emotional development also could help education advocates faced with budget cuts to music programs. “Now we’re getting to the point where research is starting to emerge showing the impacts [of budget cuts to music programs,] and I think this new brain research is very relevant,” Patel says. “Those [budgetary] decisions ultimately should be made on the basis of facts, not just opinions.”
For the field of music therapy, the latest brain research underscores deep connections between music and the mental processes used to develop language. “If that’s true then perhaps we can use music to access some of those mechanisms and help people who have language problems through the use of music-based training programs,” says Patel, the author ofMusic, Language, and the Brain.
“If music was isolated in its own little part of the brain and not connected to anything else that we do, it wouldn’t matter if you tried to use music therapy because that wouldn’t be speaking to the rest of the brain. But the picture that seems to be emerging is that while musical ability involves some special skills that don’t overlap with other things there is a tremendous amount of overlap as well.
“That has huge implications in terms of understanding just who we are and how we’re built to communicate, and figuring how to design the best therapies for people with different types of language and movement disorders.”