Music on the Brain

Since 2017, the NIH has partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on a program called Sound Health, and in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, NIH has just funded the first research grants for this initiative. A talented musician in his own right, NIH Director Francis Collins has written about these awards and the fascinating questions being asked about how music interacts with the brain. Here, I’d like to turn that question on its proverbial head and ask, “What is it about the minds of doctors and scientists that makes them love and create music?”

Some have said that being a doctor – facing life and death, delivering bad news to families, performing delicate surgeries – or a researcher – writing grants, having scientific papers rejected, redoing experiments over and over – are so intense and give so little instant gratification, that those who play these roles need some relaxation and release. It’s hard to find a group of physicians and researchers that doesn’t include at least a few hobbyist musicians. Music is the escape, they say, from the tragedy, the frustration, the need for intense focus in medicine and science.

There is doubtless some truth to this.  I vividly recall getting back to my hospital-owned studio apartment from 36 hours straight of hospital call and blowing off steam banging on the piano I had bought for $200 – almost a week’s salary for an intern.  But there is another connection that rings truer to me.  For me, music and biology are cut of exactly the same cloth. 

Restriction Enzyme – image credit: Sagar Aryal

After freshman year in college, I spent a summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island as an Undergraduate Research Participant.  I worked on a newly discovered group of proteins called restriction enzymes.  Restriction enzymes cut DNA, the genetic substance, in very specific parts of its sequence.  My mentor was quite excited about the potential for restriction enzymes to be used as tools to help scientists figure out the sequence of DNA and understand what makes each person’s DNA different from any other’s.  I, on the other hand, was thrilled with the restriction enzymes themselves.  They cut the two strands of DNA at sequences that were palindromes.  That is, on one strand, the sequence at which they cut could be read from left to right; on the other strand, the sequence was the same as that of the first strand, but only if you read it from right to left.  Imagine the symmetry of the “knife edges” of that enzyme that made it fit precisely into the place where the mirror image sequences lived and cut the DNA in equivalent places on both strands!

As a student of music theory and composition, I had studied fugues, a genre of music in which a simple theme is played in one voice. Then, while the theme is repeated in a second voice, it is played inverted in the first.  One voice plays the theme “left to right”; another plays it “right to left”.  And they dovetail perfectly to make a whole the function of which is greater than the sum of its parts.  Just like the restriction enzyme!

The cardiologist Robert S. Root-Bernstein, once wrote, “Thus, those doctors who have been most sensitive to their culture, and most inventive in their everyday lives, have also been most insightful in their work.  Music, the arts, poetry, and literature actually contribute in essential ways to the training of doctors and influence the way in which they perceive medicine.”*  Sound Health is not only a play on words for audiences and patients; it is a part of what makes doctors and scientists who and what we are.

* Root-Bernstein RS.  J Mol Cell Cardiol 19:1043-1051, (1987)