Sound Health: Where Sopranos and Scientists Meet

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts launched the Sound Health initiative (see upcoming events here), which aims to explore the connections between music, the arts, and physical and mental wellness.

The partnership is in many ways unprecedented, bringing together the largest funder of biomedical research in the world and the nation’s leading performing arts center, and curiously enough it started at a dinner party with an unlikely duet between NIH Director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor at Large Renée Fleming.

“When I met Francis Collins, I discovered that he was a terrific musician,” Fleming said. “He not only plays the guitar and piano, but he writes his own music. This is a busy guy.”

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor at Large Renée Fleming

Collins might be best known for his work leading the group that mapped the human genome, but he wrote his first piece of music at age 5 on a pump organ at his childhood home in Virginia, and he said more scientists are musicians than a lot of people realize. Collins and Fleming began talking about music and science and actually ended up performing a few duets at the dinner party.

“I realized just how open she was to so many musical styles, but also how interested she was in this idea of how you figure out scientifically what’s going on when someone is composing, or singing, or playing an instrument,” he said.

“I have become very interested in science and medicine, and I started noticing that more and more there were new neurologic studies on music and the brain,” Fleming explained. “Then I started seeing these viral videos of patients with Alzheimer’s who were showing progress in being able to communicate [with the help of music therapy] after years of living inside themselves. … I really want this message to get out because if people understood the power of arts in our lives [it would affect the way we make arts accessible to everyone.]”

Collins said he and Fleming both agreed they needed to follow up on that conversation and their shared interest, which eventually led to a collaboration called Sound Health, which builds on performances the National Symphony Orchestra has given at the NIH Clinical Center in recent years. The partnership is about bringing institutions and groups to the table who have rarely sat together. All involved have noted that the formal research into this area is relatively new compared to other fields, and there is still so much about how music impacts brain function that we still don’t know. To that end, a major goal is to bring attention and hopefully funding to the field to continue building on that knowledge with scientific rigor.

In January, the NIH hosted a two-day workshop that invited medical experts and scientists who are researching music’s effect on the brain throughout the human life cycle, music therapists who are applying research and using music in interventions for patients dealing with a wide array of medical conditions, and performers and arts professionals from the Kennedy Center.

“Using new imaging technologies, scientists have documented how early musical training produces actual anatomic changes in the brain,” Collins said. “And a growing number of reports are appearing where music therapy has provided benefit to individuals with medical conditions as diverse as autism, chronic pain, and stroke. But there is so much we still don’t know about the effects of music in health broadly, and this partnership aims to explore this uncharted territory.”

On June 2 and 3, the Kennedy Center with the NIH in association with the National Endowment for the Arts will host Sound Health in Concert and Music and the Mind, a series of performances, lectures and hands-on workshops that bring leading researchers in the field and performers to explore the intersection of music and science.

“The Kennedy Center is honored to collaborate with the NIH in such a meaningful way,” said Deborah F. Rutter, Kennedy Center President. “Seeing the potential for this extraordinary work to occur in the coming months and years is truly inspiring. I hope that through this partnership, we can all learn more about the science of music, and in turn, learn how it can help us all have a more healthy daily life.”

Click here for tickets and more information on Sound Health and the June 2 and 3 events.