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The Power and Science of Music Therapy

Some of the world’s leaders in Music Therapy will gather at Northwestern University on May 11 for a symposium: Music Therapy at the Intersection of Medicine, Society & Our Personal Lives.

“I was thrilled that [all of these experts] agreed to speak at a conference about Music Therapy,” says Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor of Neurobiology, Communication Sciences and Otolaryngology at Northwestern University. Kraus is also one of the founders of Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries Program.

The sold-out symposium will aim to generate awareness and excitement around the fast-growing use of Music Therapy and how it may be under-utilized in terms of intervention in human health.

According to Kraus, the symposium was born out of a partnership with NIH, forged more than a year ago.

“I was invited to a workshop hosted by NIH Director Francis Collins,” Kraus says. “He wondered whether music was an area NIH should be getting more involved in funding. Historically NIH has not funded much music research.”

As a biological scientist, Kraus has spent much of her career studying how the brain makes sense of sound and how our brains can be strengthened by musical experience.

“There is a lot of evidence that Music Therapy is helpful for people’s health,” Kraus says.

The symposium’s topics range from Music Therapy and Autism, Music and Movement Disorders and Music and Traumatic Brain Injury.

“Sound engages many systems in the brain,” Kraus says. “Making sense of sound engages the systems underlying how we move, perceive, think and feel about sound.”

While Kraus says the conference is really about other people, she will be on hand to provide some context on what we have learned from neuroscience research in her lab and globally.

“If you play a musical instrument, there are changes in how your brain automatically responds to sound, extending to how it responds to speech and to other sounds you hear,” Kraus says. “We can show this objectively by capturing the brain’s response to sound with great precision.”

Several of the symposium speakers will address traumatic brain injuries, an area Kraus is currently examining.

“Concussion is currently a large research focus in my lab,” Kraus says. “How sound processing is affected by a blow to the head. Sound processing is one of the most complicated jobs we give our brains to do. It’s interesting to think about how music could foster recovery from concussion on athletes.”

Kraus and Tory Lindley, associate athletic director and director of athletic training of Northwestern Athletics, recently received a grant from NIH to study all 500 of Northwestern’s athletes, from football players to swimmers. They will be studying students for the next five years.

“We’re investigating how sound processing in the brain can be disrupted by head injury, and how it can be used as an objective biomarker of brain health following injury. All as a metric of recovery,” Kraus says.

While Sound Arts and Industries students come to the program with a variety of interests and backgrounds, they are all required to take Kraus’ course, Introduction to Sound Science, which examines the biological foundations of speech and music. Kraus says a lot of her students have shown an interest in the biology of sound processing and many of them are registered for the May 11 symposium.