ASHINGTON — What do a Supreme Court justice, the director of the National Institutes of Health, and a four-time Grammy-winning opera singer discuss over dessert?
Nothing, actually. They just sing Bob Dylan.
It was at a dinner party two years ago when that trio got together — Antonin Scalia, NIH Director Francis Collins, and Renee Fleming — and found themselves singing a rendition of “The Times They Are a-Changin.’” But the gathering, as Collins recalled before a packed concert hall Friday night, also made him and Fleming, an artistic advisor to the Kennedy Center, realize there was an opportunity to work together to explore the crossover between their two fields: science and music.
That partnership that came to life this weekend at the Kennedy Center, with a series of events that featured major names in neuroscience and music (including Ben Folds and jazz virtuoso Esperanza Spalding) and that was aimed at explaining how scientists are beginning to gain a clearer picture of how the brain processes music — and how doctors are applying their findings.
The events followed a January gathering on the same theme at the NIH’s campus in Maryland.
At one point Friday night, Folds tinkered with a baby grand piano and exhorted sections of the National Symphony Orchestra to turn his improvised keystrokes into a quick-turn symphonic arrangement and a standing ovation — a demonstration of how the mind works while improvising.
Unlike in a typical concert, the weekend’s many musical performers shared their stages with scientists talking about the mechanisms behind the music — explaining, for instance, how music can change the length and width of a patient’s arcuate fasciculus, a neural pathway made up of fiber bundles in the brain
“The brain is a giant pattern detector,” McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin said as the orchestra waited behind him to play its next notes, “and it picks up these patterns in the world wherever they occur. The precise region of the brain that detects these patterns is right up here in the prefrontal cortex — it detects temporal patterns.”
The concerts that did not feature traditionally scientific explanations — from the likes of prominent neuroscientists including Levitin, Northwestern’s Nina Kraus, and UCSF’s Charles Limb — featured medical ones.
Collins and Vivek Murthy (the U.S. surgeon general until President Trump fired him in April) also participated in the concert-lecture hybrids, and in a panel on music’s role in public health moderated by Fleming.
The collaboration’s highlights included the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The musicians paused to highlight the four-note riff the composition is famous for — before Levitin took the stage to explain.
“The brain pretty much knows when the next note will be,” he said. “But it doesn’t know what it will be. A skillful composer has to reward your expectations some of the time, but cleverly violate them once in awhile in order to hold your interest. So Beethoven is toying with your powers of prediction.”
Moments later, Limb took the microphone and displayed a video of himself tinkering on his own keyboard — while he was in an MRI machine — so that he could measure the impact his playing had on his brain activity.
One parent, in a panel moderated by Indiana University music therapy researcher Sheri Robb, recounted the years and dollars spent on traditional means of therapy for his child on the autism spectrum. It was music therapy, in the end, that helped the child overcome his developmental delays and overcome his “tactile defensiveness.
Then came the story of Forrest Allen, who as a high school student in 2011 suffered a brain injury while snowboarding and whose parents, once he awoke from a coma, were not sure he would regain his ability to speak.
His music teacher-turned-music therapist, Tom Sweitzer, recalled at first eliciting only a movement from Allen’s pinkie when he played guitar at his hospital beside.
“Every little thing was a triumph,” Sweitzer recalled. “Every time he blew air through a recorder.”
But the sessions soon turned more formally to music therapy, all the way from Allen singing along briefly to individual notes to eventually singing along to show tunes months later.
“Thankfully, I can walk and move and speak,” Allen said, “most likely because of Tom.”
But the event extended far beyond individual testimonials to the role music can play in health and healing.
For Collins, the man running the nation’s largest research agency, “music was just something that you did growing up,” he said during his Saturday panel with Murthy. And while Murthy did not grow up guitar in hand, he too cited music as an element in the post-administration life he has only recently begun to plan, describing the “toolbox” he wishes to use in his quest to improve the country’s emotional health.
“There are some places medicine can’t reach,” Murthy said. “As I was sitting there last night, I thought to myself: We have to include music and the arts in our toolbox for how to improve emotional well-being.”
Accordingly, the NIH’s recently announced “All of Us” research program will ask one million Americans about the factors that contribute to good health, from genome sequencing to wearing sensors to detect physical activity — and potentially, to the arts.
“They want to be asked other things,” Collins said. “Let’s find out what role music is playing in their lives.”