Skip to main content
NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

NIEHS Celebrates Earth Day With Science, Music

Members of the Croasdaile Chorale singing.

Residents of the Croasdaile Retirement Village keep music in their lives by rehearsing and performing around the Durham area in the Croasdaile Chorale.

Photo: Steve McCaw

A unique mix of science and music drew an enthusiastic crowd Apr. 22 for an NIEHS-sponsored Earth Day celebration at the downtown Durham Convention Center. The Music and Your Health community forum featured talks by scientists and leaders of local organizations devoted to the healing power of music, with performances by professional and amateur musicians alike.

In opening remarks, NIEHS and National Toxicology Program director Dr. Linda Birnbaum spoke of the presence of music in our environment. “We’re particularly interested in its health benefits, making sure that music is a part of our everyday lives,” she said.

John Oxendine demonstrates the role of music in Lumbee tribal life.

John Oxendine used a drum and a double flute to demonstrate the role of music in Lumbee tribal life.

Photo: Steve McCaw

Co-organizer Dr. Brandy Beverly, an NTP health scientist, was inspired by the June 2017 joint production by NIH and the Kennedy Center. “I knew we needed to do something like that here,” said Beverly, who is also a violinist with the Durham Medical Orchestra. “It’s a great way to integrate music in our lives while exploring the science behind its benefits.”

Beverly went to Dr. Laura Thomas, a neuroscientist in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. Thomas was part of the team led by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins that planned both the Kennedy Center event and an earlier conference in January 2017. “What better way to talk about music in the environment than to tie it in with Earth Day?” Thomas asked.

The program opened with Lumbee tribal member John Oxendine explaining the importance of music in ritual and daily life and performing a haunting sample of traditional flute music. “When our elders sing the old songs they knew as a child, it’s medicine to them,” Oxendine said.

Jazz singer Nnenna Freelon performing.

Jazz singer Nnenna Freelon gave the closing performance.

Photo: Steve McCaw

He was followed by three scientists from Duke University. Dr. Kevin LaBar explained the therapies that can result from understanding how the brain processes music. “Music engages lots of different regions of the brain, and musical training can enhance those connections,” he said. Dr. Heidi White described a pilot study using a patient’s musical preferences in the treatment of dementia. “There was a statistically significant decrease in the severity of symptoms…language improvements, a greater volume of speech and more emphasis on reminiscence,” she said. Dr. Neema Sharda directs the Confusion Avoidance Led by Music (CALM) project. “We hope to shrink the risk of delirium and use personalized music to modulate the need for pain medications,” said Sharda. In one study, 65 percent of her patients reported a positive effect on mood and decreased delirium risk.

Musical performers included the Durham Medical Orchestra; the Croasdaile Chorale, composed of residents of the Croasdaile Retirement Village; and Kidznotes. Six-time Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon closed the day with an interweaving of storytelling and song.

The event was a first for NIEHS. “Since I became director of NIEHS we’ve made a tradition of sponsoring community forums,” said Birnbaum. “We’re going to start making music a part of our journey towards health.” According to Thomas, NIH plans to offer more opportunities to investigate music as a therapeutic intervention. “This event continues that conversation,” Thomas said.—John Yewell

Back to Top