Why It’s Sound Policy for the NEA to Partner on Sound Health

By Ann Meier Baker, Music & Opera Director, and Sunil Iyengar, Research & Analysis Director, National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) unites the programmatic and scientific interests that are made explicit by the Sound Health partnership between the National Institutes of Health and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. As a collaborator, the NEA brings to this initiative our experience as a funding and research agency that continues to be active at the intersection of music, health, and science. Given the rate at which these trans-disciplinary projects are flourishing throughout the country, the NEA is proud to be working in association with the Kennedy Center and the NIH on “Sound Health: Music and the Mind.”

Here’s just one example of music and science converging on a NEA-funded project. The University of Washington’s interdisciplinary Art + Brain Lab (at UW’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media) is collaborating with the Swedish Neuroscience institute on a project called “Performing with the Brain.” The project will use a new form of musical performance and interaction based on biofeedback for patients suffering from motor disability related to brainstem stroke, spinal cord injury, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). These patients, whose brains no longer effectively control limb movement, will be able to generate music not only for enjoyment, but for the purpose of rehabilitation. This advance is made possible by an encephalophone — a novel Brain Computer Music Interface that allows users to create improvised music in real time, using cognitive control of electroencephalogram (EEG), which in turn enables them to manipulate specially-developed music devices.

Twelve hundred miles away in San Diego, Mainly Mozart’s goal is to understand the role that musical training can have in improving brain function, and to provide new ways of integrating music into people’s lives to improve cognitive function and delay or mitigate the effects of brain disease and aging. Next month, the nonprofit organization’s Mozart and the Mind: Exploring the Music-Brain Effect project will bring together some of the world’s leading lights in music-brain research, therapies, and technologies. These experts will share the stage with musicians and composers in an exploration at the crossroad of music and neuroscience.

In addition to these examples of NEA-funded projects, the agency offers investigators the opportunity to probe links between the arts and positive cognitive, emotional, and physical health-related outcomes through the NEA’s Research: Art Works grants program.

For example, researchers at the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine are investigating the effects of live music on patients and hospital staff in emergency and level-one trauma care settings. Carnegie Hall, meanwhile, is conducting a program evaluation of “The Lullaby Project,” a personalized music intervention for at-risk, pregnant young women. The researchers hypothesize that mothers enrolled in the program will show significantly improved ratings of maternal attachment with their children, as well as reductions of anxiety, depression, and parental stress in comparison with mothers randomly assigned to a control group.

Other NEA-sponsored research already has yielded results. In one small-scale study, George Mason University researchers found that when residents in a long-term care facility were randomly assigned to a “music, imagery, and movement” treatment, they showed greater reduction in depression scores than did similar adults assigned to a conversation-only group. In a larger, longitudinal study — a collaboration between Concordia University Chicago and Rush University Medical Center — researchers detected a slower decline in cognitive functioning in older adults who frequently attended live performing arts events, including music.

Beyond funding and research, the NEA is involved in other conversations examining the ties between neuroscience and music including a collaboration with the Santa Fe Institute a few years ago on a research workshop and report titled “How Creativity Works in the Brain.” As for music, the brain, and healing, the NEA supports music therapy for military service members with traumatic brain injury and associated psychological health conditions through Creative Forces, our partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

It has been a privilege for the NEA to be involved in these and other efforts to advance the role that music and all the arts play in fundamental learning about neuroscience. But let’s not forget the neuroscience of learning. There are more stories to tell here, about the benefits of music training for broader educational achievement, but we’ll save those for another date!

For information about attending “Sound Health: Music and the Mind