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Where Music Meets Science


At a recent sunset roof party in Brooklyn, hosted by a conductor friend and his artist wife, I was talking with a young professional oboist who mentioned that she needed to study for an intensive summer course she was taking in human anatomy and physiology. She is considering a career move that would bring together her dual lifelong passions for music and science: occupational therapy for musicians. I introduced her to my wife, who is a surgery resident at Columbia University Medical Center, and who played the clarinet seriously in high school. The two health-minded wind players hit it off and talked for a while, probably about broken reeds and musician injuries. We also spotted another young surgeon my wife knows from Columbia, who is on the board of the host’s young orchestra, is a pianist herself, and has hosted musical events in her home.  


Interestingly, there were a number of people from the medical and scientific world at this gathering of musicians. Was this surprising? Hardly. Medical and musical people seem somehow to find each other, to be enlivened to be together, and to forge social bonds. And many people are, to some extent, both medical and musical. My ophthalmologist, for example, is a formidable amateur concert pianist. One of my most gifted and dedicated students in Juilliard’s Evening Division, a composer and pianist, is, in his spare time, a neurologist. Two of the biomedical labs I’ve done research in have been headed by seriously talented instrumentalists. Juilliard classmates of mine have gone on to medical school and into physics graduate training, realizing that their passion for music is a part of the fabric of their being that they can keep and exercise, regardless of whether they choose music as a profession.  

I went the other way. I met my wife while we were both cell biology researchers at Columbia University, but I left the lab to begin my M.M. at Juilliard at the same time that she left to begin her M.D. on the other side of Central Park at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. We are a music and medicine couple, and have met countless health science professionals who are also serious about music, and who do remarkably well in their musical endeavors considering the crushing demands of a life in medicine.  

But one doesn’t have to be a couple like us to encounter frequent intersections of music with the sciences, and in particular, the medical sciences. In the broadest sense, both emerge from the human impulse to organize and take some control, even with vastly complex systems. As a composer, I’m always thinking about how I want to organize sonic events, about what it means to give order to sound, about how others have chosen to do so, and about whether sound even needs to be organized at all to constitute music.  Skilled performers, too, know of music, as a physician knows of the human body, that the whole bears a very complex relationship to its parts, that minute subtleties of phrasing in one passage of a piece can affect the impact of a distant passage, and of the overall impact of a work, and that those impacts may be very different depending on precisely where it is heard, who the listener is, and what their mood is at the time they hear it.  These relationships may seem impossibly complex, yet we strive to make them tangible—to whatever extent they can be—and to understand something about them in order to have some control over them.  

On its own, music is often credited with healing power for both psychological and physical problems. A research project I worked on while in college gathered data on music’s capacity to improve smoothness of movement in Parkinson’s disease patients.  When the parts of the brain that ordinarily initiate movement are damaged, the study hypothesizes, other parts of the brain may be able to step in and take over some of those duties, and, since it has been documented scientifically (and even in the Hollywood film Awakenings) that music is one of the very few things that can help Parkinson’s patients, it seems possible that it is the music-processing parts of the brain that we have to thank.

A new inter-campus group is exploring these and other overlaps of music, science, and medicine. The Juilliard Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Initiative—a collaborative effort with Weill Cornell Medical College—began as the brainchild of Drs. David A. Shapiro and Richard Kogan, both prominent psychiatrists from Weill Cornell Medical College, who found partnership with Juilliard’s President Joseph Polisi and Dean Ara Guzelimian in sharing the belief that musical expression is a central part of human health. Since then, with their enthusiastic support, students from both schools have taken the lead in designing an agenda of activities for the group. 

Last year, students initiated a salon series. Featuring discussion and musical performance, each salon is dedicated to a special topic, ranging from synesthesia (the rare condition in which musical notes or sonorities evoke strong sensations of specific colors) to the ancient Greek modal theory and the association of each mode with specific psychological and moral attributes. Welcoming members from throughout the Juilliard and Weill Cornell communities, the salons vary in size and setting—from Juilliard studios to private homes. The group partnered with the Literature and Materials of Music department to bring psychiatrist/concert pianist Kogan to Juilliard’s campus last February for an exploration of Robert Schumann’s mental illness and its manifestations in his music. Members of the Juilliard community have trekked across town to Weill Cornell for “Grand Rounds” lectures related to music and the health sciences.  

This year’s salon series begins on September 24, with an event examining the genetics and biology behind absolute pitch (a.k.a. perfect pitch), with visiting researchers from North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System’s Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and the Yale School of Medicine, as well as an event on November 5 exploring music and healing with Karen Popkin, a music therapist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Furthermore, the initiative is planning a tribute to Haitian recovery, honoring the efforts of relief workers and artists who work to heal bodies and minds in the earthquake-ravaged nation. 


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