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The Science of Music Interventions – A Sound Health Initiative

Council Date: June 1, 2018

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 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 managements, 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.