A unique mix of science and music drew an enthusiastic crowd April 22 for an NIEHS-sponsored Earth Day celebration at the downtown Durham Convention Center.
The Music and Your Health community forum featured talks by scientists and leaders of local organizations devoted to the healing power of music, with performances by professional and amateur musicians alike.
In opening remarks, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., spoke of the presence of music in our environment. “We’re particularly interested in its health benefits, making sure that music is a part of our everyday lives,” Birnbaum said.
“What better way to talk about music in the environment than to tie it in with Earth Day?” asked co-organizer Laura Thomas, Ph.D., neuroscientist and scientific review officer in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.
Continuing the musical journey
Planning began after co-organizer and NTP health scientist Brandy Beverly, Ph.D., learned about a similar event last June, which was a joint production of The Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“I knew we needed to do something like that here,” said Beverly, who is also a violinist with the Durham Medical Orchestra. “It’s a great way to integrate music in our lives while exploring the science behind its benefits.”
Beverly went to Thomas, who was part of the team led by NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., that planned both the Kennedy Center event and an earlier conference in January 2017. John Schelp, from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity, assisted.
The program opened with Lumbee tribal member John Oxendine explaining the importance of music in ritual and daily life, and performing a haunting sample of traditional flute music. “When our elders sing the old songs they knew as a child, it’s medicine to them,” Oxendine said.
Kevin LaBar, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, explained the therapies that can result from understanding how the brain processes music.
“Music engages lots of different regions of the brain, and musical training can enhance those connections,” said LaBar. “Using images, they’ve developed therapies to help people recover speech functions [lost due to strokes or other causes].”
Heidi White, M.D., vice chief of clinical affairs in the geriatrics division at Duke University School of Medicine, described a pilot study using a patient’s musical preferences in the treatment of dementia.
“There was a statistically significant decrease in the severity of symptoms,” said White. “There were also language improvements, a greater volume of speech, and more emphasis on reminiscence.”
Neema Sharda, M.D., a geriatric physician at the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, directs the Confusion Avoidance Led by Music (CALM) project. Her work also focuses on personalizing music and dementia, with an emphasis on pain management and what’s known as postoperative delirium, a common complication for older patients.
“We hope to shrink the risk of delirium and use personalized music to modulate the need for pain medications,” said Sharda. In one study, 65 percent of her patients reported a positive effect on mood and decreased delirium risk.
In the second session, Yasmine White, a music therapist and CEO and founder of Voices Together, described her work using music therapy to increase communication and socialization for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Kathryn Wyatt, co-founder of Kidznotes and director of El Sistema USA, discussed how El Sistema’s Venezuelan-based model creates social change by offering extracurricular musical training to socially and economically disadvantaged youth. Kidznotes, based at Duke, is El Sistema’s U.S. affiliate.
Max Puhala and Berk Ozturk, founders of Push Play Sing!, a participatory music program for people with disabilities, staged a remarkable demonstration with several clients. Other musical performers included the Durham Medical Orchestra, the Croasdaile Chorale, and Kidznotes.
Six-time Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon closed the day with a beautiful interweaving of storytelling and song.
The event was a first for NIEHS. “Since I became director of NIEHS we’ve made a tradition of sponsoring community forums,” said Birnbaum. “We’re going to start making music a part of our journey towards health.”
According to Thomas, NIH plans to offer more opportunities to investigate music as a therapeutic intervention. “This event continues that conversation,” Thomas said.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)