The Science of Music

Changing minds and bodies through musical experience

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Rodriguez album

 

As a young student, Cristina Rodriguez adored music. But when a teacher announced a donation of instruments would allow her school to start an orchestra, she was unsure what to expect.

Then Rodriguez picked up the cello. And soon, she was smitten.

In high school, Rodriguez discovered the string instrument wasn't the only thing that charmed her. She was fascinated by the way music touched people's brains: How all the members of the orchestra had high grade-point averages; how most of the students in her honors and AP courses participated in the arts; and how time seemed to stop when she created music and played her cello.

"You are present the whole time you are playing and can't really worry about anything," Rodriguez said. In her teens, she volunteered at hospitals and conceived of various ways to share with others the comfort music gave her.

Years later, while working on her thesis for degrees in biochemistry and pre-med at Florida Atlantic University, Rodriguez found a way to combine her loves of music and medical science to help those in need.

In 2014, she and classmate Lauren Koff founded Mind&Melody to bring interactive music programs to individuals experiencing neurological impairment, such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia, autism and Down syndrome. Based in Miami, Fla., the nonprofit engages musicians who perform music that represents patients' favorite eras and personal cultures to help reengage their static minds and improve their cognitive and motor skills.

Mind and Melody music specialist demonstrates didgeridoo to elder adults
Ashlie, Mind&Melody Music Enrichment Specialist, demonstrates the didgeridoo an indigenous Australian instrument to older adults. Participants are fascinated by the sound and shape of the instrument. Photo by Amanda Smith Photography

"They play a song that brings back memories for the patient," Rodriguez explained, adding that the brain stores emotional memories in a different way from how it stores regular memories.

While listening to or playing music hasn't been shown to prevent dementia or cognitive impairments, Rodriguez explained that music can reach hidden areas spared by diseases like Alzheimer's and help patients reunite with the world around them.

Rodriguez recalled a formerly active married couple whose age-related cognitive difficulties made it difficult for them to connect with people. When the pair started therapy with Mind&Melody, they were able to socialize again.

"It helps them connect better with friends and family," Rodriguez said. "They talk through music. It keeps their brains active and keeps them socially active."

Violinist Diane McElfish Helle launched a similar program for the Grand Rapids Symphony. Her Music for Health Initiative at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Mich., partners musicians with medical professionals to provide music therapy for people with myriad health issues. McElfish Helle has called the nonprofit agency her most important endeavor as a professional musician. In 2017, she received the Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service from the League of American Orchestras for her work.

Musical chemistry

In addition to creating chemical reactions in the brain, researchers have also found that music produces a sense of comradery, or unity.

Ever notice that it only takes two or three claps to get thousands of people at a concert to synchronize their claps or foot taps on beat?

Research going back to naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin suggests that our ancestors were more fit to mate if they were able to not just feed, protect and provide for a family, but also were able to sing or make music in a pleasant way. Musical abilities, scientists contend, stimulate cohesion, which helped groups hunt for large game, outlast predators, and better survive the savage world where survival most often only was for the fittest.

Now, music-generated cohesion plays a role in community building and work productivity, according to four economists from Cornell University. They examined music's impact on cooperation by having three groups of participants make decisions based on how much they would or would not pool resources with other people in the lab.

Kevin Kniffin, co-author of the 2016 study, reported music in the workplace can cause conflicts if people dislike the selections played. However, Kniffin said his research team found "a rhythm that was a common qualifier of happy music" and streamed that for one group. At the same time, they streamed unhappy music for the second group and did not stream any music for the control group.

Kniffin and the Cornell researchers found that those who received the established happy music had better moods and persistently higher levels of cooperative behavior. Meanwhile, the control group, which heard no music, and those who heard unhappy music, were less inclined to cooperate with colleagues.

Regardless of one's workplace, medical diagnosis, age or stage of life, Mind&Melody's Rodriguez said an important "chemical thing" happens when you listen to music, play an instrument or sing.

"If you're having a terrible day or month, music is comforting," Rodriguez said. "It can bring you back and ground you."

Cristina Rodriguez holds the ukelele, on the right, and Lauren Koff, left holds a green microphone, last year in Boca Raton, Fla. Mind&Melody Music Enrichment Specialists who help provide services to participants. Photo by Amanda Smith Photography

The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum's GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.