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Inside the effort to make music that heals


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: It's no secret that music can evoke emotion and influence someone's mood…but musicians and scientists are advancing studies on how it can help with healing.

During the pandemic, one diverse set of musicians added their creative talents to the study of therapeutic music--teaming up as a 'drone ensemble' to make music for healing.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Mike Cerre has the story.

Mike Cerre: What do you get when you cross opera star Renee Fleming with rock star Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Indian classical music virtuoso Zakir Hussain making music for healing in the middle of a pandemic?

Mike Cerre: It's called drone music, and embraces ancient healing and meditation traditions.

Mickey Hart: Music and medicine goes back as far as history goes back, you know, shamanism, people lived by that.

Zakir Hussain: We are taught that when somebody got sick in the house, we were told to play our Tambour, which is the drone instrument.

Renee Fleming: When you think about these types of therapies and interventions, they're non pharmaceutical, they're very low cost, and they really are working.

Mike Cerre: The power of music to heal, or at the very least promote well being, is well documented in most cultures. But it's only been in the past two decades that the scientific and medical communities have come together in an effort to prove its efficacy and possibilities of including it in medical protocols.

Charles Limb: Suddenly these things that were simply left to speculation, into theory, we now have measurements on it, we have data, we have the ability to actually observe the human brain doing these remarkable music and artistic tasks.

Mike Cerre: Dr. Charles Limb is the co-director of the Sound Health Network at the University of California San Francisco. It's a collaboration with scientists from the National Institutes of Health, and artists from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Charles Limb: So one thing I've noticed in all of the musical experiments I've done is that when you listen to a musical stimulus and you look at the brain while that's being listened to, the entire brain is really engaged. The music is a robust stimulus for the brain.

Mike Cerre: Advances in MRI technology has allowed researchers to scan musicians' brains while playing music to observe how music affects different brain functions.

Renee Fleming: It surprised the scientists as well, not just me, that the most powerful effect on my brain in this experiment, which had me singing, imagining singing and speaking, was imagining singing.

Mike Cerre: Renee Fleming spent much of the past year working with scientists and medical experts on how best to advance the music and healing connection with her series of podcasts called "Music & Mind."

Renee Fleming: The discovery, for instance, that there's a music room in the brain, that it's distinct from speech was really key, very important.

Mike Cerre: Daniel Levitin, the McGill & Stanford Universities neuroscientist, music composer and bestselling author of "This Is Your Brain On Music," believes the most likely therapeutic uses of music will be for treating the less functioning cognitive parts of the brain caused by Alzheimers and other brain diseases.

Daniel Levitin: In Parkinson's disease, music is helpful because it sets a pace or a tempo and often Parkinson's patients can't walk because they're frozen. And the music gives them a pulse that causes neurons in their brain in the basal ganglia, the cerebellum, the motor action centers, to synchronize with the tempo. And that helps them to start walking and to keep walking. You can't repair broken neural connections, but you can make new ones. Any time you learn something new, those are new neural pathways. Practicing an instrument, learning an instrument, develops these pathways.

Mickey Hart: My grandmother who had Alzheimer's, and she was fading and she hadn't spoken about three or four years, and I started playing the drum and she was smiling, you know, as best she could. And then she said my name. It was a startling discovery and it kind of lit my light.

Mike Cerre: Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has been working with UCSF neurologist Dr. Adam Gazzaley to determine which rhythms might be more effective than others for treating damaged parts of the brain.

Mickey Hart: My brain, you know, rhythm central. So seeing how how it reacted to certain beats, loud, soft, fast or slow was a revelation.

Mike Cerre: Perhaps one of Renee's most revealing music therapy experiences was with Army Capt. Luis Avila, who lost his ability to speak after an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Intensive music therapy helped him regain his voice and eventually his speech.

Renee Fleming: And to see that that was such an extraordinary gift to him through melodic intonation therapy, which is the name of this particular therapy, to regain some speech, to regain his ability to communicate. That's an incredible gift.

Zakir Hussain: The one thing that I've noticed about making music in the time of this pandemic, when you are isolated, that there's that much more deeper connection with what you're trying to achieve.

Mike Cerre: Zakir Hussain, Mickey Hart and Renee Fleming's "Pandemic Drone Ensemble" of sorts was one of the 10 pieces of drone music recorded remotely for meditation and healing practices. The music was recently released on Commune, an online well being and healing network, accompanied by Mickey Hart's paintings with rhythm.

Mickey Hart: So they call it vibrational expressionism, whereas it is vibrated into existence. I use a bass speaker and I control it with the beam, with the monochord and things rise that you had never suspected from underneath the many layers of paint.

Renee Fleming: I think if we think about the things that make us feel calm and relaxed, any kind of folk music very often has a drone involved. It has been shown actually at MIT to clean up amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain.

Mike Cerre: Mickey Hart has intuitively been discovering music's power to heal the past half century, performing the Grateful Dead's version of music therapy in concert to tens of thousands at a time. The lifting of COVID restrictions is allowing him to tour again this summer with Dead & Company and take his music therapy back out on the road.

Mike Cerre: So, "Dr. Hart," do you take Medicare payments at your performances for all of us?

Mickey Hart: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, hey, in many states, doctors can write a script for music therapy, so it's not far off with music that can be prescribed.

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