Sound Science: A conversation with Drs. Simoni and Langevin

In mid-December, it was my pleasure to attend the workshop “Music as Medicine: The Science and Clinical Practice” to learn what music has to do with social and behavioral sciences and health. Below I discuss highlights from the workshop with Dr. Helene Langevin, Director of NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), whose Center co-sponsored the event which former NIH Director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and arts and health advocate Renée Fleming co-chaired.

JS: Helene, what would you consider the three most important takeaways from the workshop regarding future research directions in behavioral and integrative health?

HL: There were so many! First, the workshop highlighted the many examples of how music impacts the brain and the body. This dual aspect of music was vividly illustrated in the research studies that were presented, as well as the wonderful illustrative performances. I personally was struck by Jeralyn Glass’ “singing bowl” demonstration, which I found profoundly calming, both physically and mentally. This experience led me to my second takeaway, which is that we need to better understand and apply music to help counter the myriad stressors in today’s society, and the vital role that the Music-Based Intervention Toolkit can play in helping this research flourish. Finally, the workshop made clear the need for interdisciplinary research and community engagement, recognizing that different communities in the arts and sciences utilize different terminologies that need to be united under one umbrella for the field to move forward.

JS: In your opinion, how best can behavioral and social scientists bring more integrative approaches into research, for example, with music interventions?

HL: I love this question: for a long time, there has been a disconnect between “hard” vs. “soft” research—essentially basic science vs. behavioral science—with clinical research attempting to bridge the gap. Until recently, clinical research predominantly aspired to “hard” research models, such as placebo-controlled trials with single outcomes. However, there has been a growing appreciation of what we are missing with this approach. Clinical trials conducted in strictly controlled research settings may not translate into benefits for patients in the “real world”; complex behavioral interventions, such as music therapy, are challenging to standardize; and finally, outcomes of these complex interventions can be multiple, including beneficial effects on the mind and the body. Behavioral and social scientists are increasingly recognized as key to growing the field of integrative health—research that embraces academic rigor while recognizing the complexity and richness of the whole person. This richness was abundantly present at the workshop and is very promising for what is to come.

JS: The workshop showcased research on the therapeutic impacts of music, the keystone of music therapy. How does NCCIH envision the role of music therapy within integrative approaches to prevention interventions that are culturally appropriate and intervene protectively for populations that experience health disparities?

HL: Music is universal, part of every culture, and found in every corner of the planet. Empowering individuals and communities to use their own musical heritage to improve health is a very exciting idea that is beginning to take root. A great example of this is the “drumming circle”—a fundamental component of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) tribes that has profound cultural and spiritual significance and is being studied to support recovery from substance use. We need more research that taps into the human instinct to use music both as a treatment, as well as for prevention, such as for proactively managing stress, especially in vulnerable and underserved populations.

JS: Day 2 highlighted research results, real world vignettes, as well as narratives of lived experience regarding the positive outcomes of health impacts of art and music therapeutic modalities in community settings. Should we as NIH offices, centers, and institutes be doing more to underscore the effectiveness of integrative approaches to enhance public health?

HL: Absolutely! One of the important and exciting aspects of the whole person health concept is its potential for bringing NIH together around a common goal. In the U.S., public health and medicine are, respectively, often focused on preventing and treating diseases, rather than supporting health. This focus on addressing diseases one at a time has been reinforced by research structures that are often based on individual organs and systems. But health really involves the whole person, and enhancing our ability to promote and support health will need an integrative approach, in which the behavioral and social sciences can play a critical role.

In conclusion, the workshop on "Music as Medicine: The Science and Clinical Practice" shed light on the profound impact of music on both the brain and the body. The event underscored the crucial role of interdisciplinary research and community engagement in advancing the field of integrative health, emphasizing the need to unite different communities under one umbrella. Dr. Helene Langevin highlighted the evolving role of behavioral and social scientists in integrating approaches like music therapy into research, recognizing the complexity and richness of addressing health as a whole. The workshop's emphasis on the universal nature of music and its potential in culturally appropriate interventions suggests a promising path forward for leveraging music therapy to improve public health and well-being.