The Science of Music

June 2, 2021 Joe Brady

Since ancient times Chinese medicine has believed that music has the power to soothe the soul in ways that other forms of medicine simply cannot. In fact, the ancient Chinese characters for happiness, music, and medicine are almost identical. Scientists today are confirming what the ancients have said about music when it comes to treating anxiety and mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, some of the most common mental health problems in today’s world.

Especially after the pandemic and economic collapse of the past 18 months, mental health problems are increasingly common. In the United States, they affect about one-fourth of adults in any given year and nearly half of adults at some time during their lives. According to the World Health Organization, mental illnesses account for more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses. 

Much current research and several major research initiatives are underway to further this fascinating line of research and promise to provide doctors in the future with a whole new set of tools that go way beyond drugs and surgery.

Read more about the latest research initiatives at NIH

A Sound Health Initiative

Program Director: Wen G. Chen, Ph.D. 


Appreciating and producing music are some of the unique capabilities of human beings. However, how listening to music and learning to produce music may affect our physiology and whether music interventions may have therapeutic values have remained largely elusive scientific questions to be addressed. In January of 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, soprano Renee Fleming, and Kennedy Center (KC) President Deborah Rutter, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), convened a workshop on “Music and the Brain” as the initial step in a larger KC/NIH collaboration, called the ‘‘Sound Health’’ initiative.  

The workshop discussed recent breakthroughs in the research of music and music interventions as well as their potential therapeutic applications around three life stages—childhood, adulthood, and aging. Current research findings suggest that the auditory cortex in the brain is the key region to process many of the unique sound features of music, such as pitch, rhythm, and harmonic structures, although much more remains to be investigated in order to fully understand the neural correlates of music listening and music processing. Preliminary evidence has emerged to suggest that brain regions involved in emotional regulation, reward, cognitive and motor function, other sensory functions such as pain, as well as regulation of many internal bodily functions and activities may be co-activated with the auditory cortex during music listening or music performance. As these brain regions have been implicated in a broad range of organ dysfunctions and nervous system disorders, these preliminary studies provide a theoretical premise to investigate the potentials of music interventions for relevant medical conditions and disorders.  

The workshop panelists recommended extensive basic and applied research pursuits to: (1) increase our understanding of how the brain processes music; (2) lead to scientifically based strategies to enhance normal brain development and function; and (3) result in evidence-based music interventions for brain diseases. In addition, the panelists strongly recommended capacity building to promote multidisciplinary research through networks and collaborative studies involving neuroscientists, music therapists, musicians, and biomedical, behavioral, or social scientists.   

Purpose of Proposed Initiative

This proposed initiative aims to support highly innovative basic and/or mechanistic studies of music interventions in appropriate model organisms and/or human subjects with no or limited preliminary data in the first phase, followed by a rapid transition to the second phase for more in-depth mechanistic investigations of these interventions or pilot clinical efficacy trials in appropriate clinical populations. The high risk associated with the innovative first phase is mitigated by the Go/No-Go Criteria or milestones designed as the requirement for the transition to the second phase. The phased award would also require partnerships and promote collaboration among basic researchers, technological development researchers, music therapists, and/or other clinical researchers.


Examples of research topics of interests include, but are not restricted to:

  • The mechanisms and/or therapeutic effects of music-related interventions for pain, opioid misuse, other symptom management, or palliative care
  • The mechanisms and/or therapeutic effects of music-related interventions for visual impairments, hearing restoration, voice, speech, language rehabilitation, spatial orientation 
  • The mechanisms and/or therapeutic effects of music-related interventions for obesity treatment and appetite control, parasympathetic neural stimulation for stress relief for patients or caregivers 
  • The mechanisms and/or effects of music-related interventions on promoting well-being, behaviors associated with health and well-being, such as exercises, improving the emotional/behavioral status of individuals with dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)/AD-related diseases
  • The mechanisms and/or therapeutic effects of music-related interventions for motor disorders across the lifespan, including stroke and Parkinson’s disease
  • The mechanisms and/or therapeutic effects of music-related interventions for general brain disorders and memory improvement 
  • Individual differences in the mechanisms and outcome effects of music-related interventions
  • Clinical research that capitalizes on and integrates basic research on music to inform the development of efficacious interventions for individuals as they age, such as exploring the potential and underlying mechanisms for music interventions to induce neural/behavioral/psychological plasticity
  • What type of music interventions works for whom, how, and for what conditions/states/functions?  
  • Early phase clinical studies for intervention refinement, feasibility, and acceptability testing of music-related interventions to prepare for future efficacy studies related to pain or symptom management and enhancement of emotional well-being
  • Pilot efficacy of music-related interventions on symptoms management including pain, stress-related disorders, opioid misuse, or promotion of emotional well-being

For the latest in research on music and the aging brain check out this virtual conference From NCCIH

Music and Health: Assessing and Measuring Target Engagement—Mechanistic and Clinical Outcome Measures for Brain Disorders of Aging

Please join us virtually on Friday, June 18 at 1 p.m. ET for the expert panel discussion “Assessing and Measuring Target Engagement: Mechanistic and Clinical Outcome Measures for Brain Disorders of Aging.”

This is the second in a series of meetings to provide input for the development of a toolkit for research on music-based interventions for brain disorders of aging. This project is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, and the Renée Fleming Foundation.

Date: June 18, 2021 – 1:00 p.m. ET to 4:00 p.m. ET

Location: Virtual; Register Here

Event Description

This is the second of three meetings that are part of Phase I of a National Institutes of Health (NIH)/Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) project to develop evidence-based music therapies for brain disorders of aging.

This meeting will gather input from participants in the music therapy/music medicine, neuroscience, behavioral intervention development, clinical trial methodology, and patient advocacy/art organization communities. The NIH planning committee will assess, evaluate, and identify the most feasible and relevant functional outcome measures in domains relevant to brain disorders of aging: cognition, emotion, and motor and sensory functions. This core dataset of outcome measures will be used in future NIH-funded music-based intervention protocols.


Draft Agenda

1:00–1:10 p.m. | Welcome

  • Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Director, National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Renée Fleming, Renowned Soprano, Arts and Health Advocate

1:10–1:15 p.m. | Setting the Stage: Music-Based Interventions (MBIs) for Brain Disorders of Aging

  • Coryse St. Hillaire-Clarke, Ph.D., Program Director, Sensory and Motor Disorders of Aging Program, Division of Neuroscience, National Institute on Aging

1:15–1:40 p.m. | Measurement Advances: Implications for the Sound Health Initiative

  • William T. Riley, Ph.D., Director, Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research

1:40–1:50 p.m. | Charge to Panelists and Thematic Group Discussion Setup

  • Emmeline Edwards, Ph.D., Director, Division of Extramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  • Alan Weil, J.D., M.P.P., Editor-in-Chief, Health Affairs

1:50–2:10 p.m. | Question 1: When designing MBIs for brain disorders of aging, what are the most important functional domains to be considered (e.g., emotion, cognition, motor, sensory, interoception)?

2:10–2:30 p.m. | Question 2: What are the most useful outcome measures (physiological, behavioral, etc.) for Alzheimer’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease related dementias (AD/ADRD), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and stroke that can be used to assess target engagement? What are the key characteristics of useful outcome measures?

  • Functional imaging and functional connectivity measures
  • Electrophysiological measures
  • Social and behavioral measures
  • Psychological and physiological measures
  • Linguistic measures
  • Music-centered measures

2:30–2:40 p.m. | Break

2:40–3:10 p.m. | Question 3: What are the advantages and disadvantages to be considered when prioritizing clinical outcome measures for AD/ADRD, PD, and stroke (e.g., objective, performance-based, patient-reported, functional)?

  • Prioritization based on the intervention
  • Proximal vs. distal (i.e., short- and long-term) outcome measures
  • Primary vs. secondary outcome measures
  • Engaging participants and caregivers
  • Remotely collected measures (i.e., ecological momentary assessment [EMA])

3:10–3:25 p.m. | Question 4: How useful are existing tools and resources (e.g., the Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System [PROMIS], the NIH Toolbox, Quality of Life in Neurological Disorders [Neuro-QoL], Science of Behavior Change [SOBC]) for studying MBIs for brain disorders of aging?

What new tools or resources are needed?

3:25–3:55 p.m. | Broad Question and Answer Session

  • Videocast audience and Zoom meeting participants

3:55–4:00 p.m. | Wrap-Up and Next Steps

  • Robert Finkelstein, Ph.D., Director, Division of Extramural Activities, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Individuals who need reasonable accommodation to participate should contact or the Federal Relay, 1-800-877-8339, by Friday, June 11.