Acclaimed singer Renee Fleming probes the relationship of ‘Music and Mind’ in new book

Famed soprano Renée Fleming wants people to better understand the link between music and health.

Musical activities can help nonverbal children speak, aid in recovery after a stroke, and improve the stride of people with Parkinson’s, according to research. To spread the word, Fleming edited the new book “Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness,” which features essays by researchers, music therapists and artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Ben Folds and Anna Deveare Smith.

The book’sroots run back to 2015, when Fleming helped launch a collaboration between the Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health to explore how the arts and health intersect.

When she first started at the Kennedy Center as an artistic advisor, Fleming attended a Washington, D.C. gathering attended by Supreme Court Justices Anthony Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as well as former NIH Director Francis Collins.

Despite some high tensions after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, Fleming and Collins brought the room together with song.

“Music has historically created social cohesion between people. It happened that night,” Fleming says. “I said, ‘Francis, why are scientists studying music and the brain?’ And he said, ‘well, we’re interested in it because we have a new brain institute. And the key is technology because this ability to look at the brain enables scientists to see the exact impact music is having.’”

Two years later, Fleming sat on a panel among scientists, music therapists and fellow artists with the Kennedy Center, the NIH and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work with the organizations inspired her to share with the public what she learned about how the arts affect people.

4 questions with Renée Fleming

How did scanning your brain show the impact of music?

“My brain scan at the NIH was an fMRI scan, functional MRI, which measures blood oxygen in the brain. And it had me singing, speaking and imagining singing. And interestingly, imagining singing, It was by far the most powerful for me. It impacted many more parts of my brain than the other two activities, which was a big surprise to the scientists.

“But they finally said, ‘Well, listen, you’re a singer, so it makes sense that that’s second nature to you.’ So that was a wonderful experience. It’s an opportunity for me to see firsthand how this research is done.

“Imagining singing can also help Parkinson’s patients who are having difficulty walking. If they just imagine a rhythmic song in their head, like ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,” they’ll be able to cross the street without stopping. It’s a simple benefit, but it’s very powerful.”

Music psychotherapist Stacie Yeldell writes about a boy who found relief from the pain of sickle cell anemia in the viral song “The Fox.” What’s the relationship between pain and music?

“Pain is what is very much impacted by music. And in fact, there’s a huge focus on research in terms of pain and Joke Bradt’s chapter, which is all about that. They don’t really know exactly what mechanism is occurring now with that, but they do know music reduces pain.

“I have a friend who actually had a brain bleed and the only thing that alleviated her excruciating pain at first was the loudest possible music she could play.  So, it’s possible that that’s what was interrupting his pain as well.”

How can music serve as a “bridge” to people with dementia, as music therapy pioneer Concetta Tomaino writes in the book?

“Music and memory are so completely linked. We remember events in our lives: If we hear just a snippet of a song, we’re back at our wedding. We’re back at any number of events.

“With people with Alzheimer’s disease, it is the last memory to stay because this memory area, as it pertains to music, is the last area of the brain that’s impacted by the disease. So [Tomaino has] been trying to kind of prolong the sustainability of memory attached to music memories.

“Somebody came up to me after the Kennedy Center Honors and said, ‘I just want to say I heard one of your presentations and my dad was really becoming difficult and becoming a little bit violent. And we remembered suddenly because of what you said, that he was an opera lover and we put on opera. And he calmed down and he smiled, and we’ve been playing it ever since. It’s made a huge difference in his mood and state.’ And so it can alleviate life for caregivers as well.”

Have these insights changed the way you sing?

“It doesn’t change the way I sing, but for instance, I now tell the audience that our brain waves are aligning as we are in this space together, having a shared musical experience. That’s why they’ve now shown that singing in a choir is more impactful than singing alone.

“How this work has changed me is that I am living my life now, being mindful of the fact that I need these artistic experiences, things that I thought were extra. ‘If I have time, I’ll go to a concert.’ I now prioritize them in my life and I see a huge difference in my state of mind, less anxiety. I’m much happier, so I’m like a living example of how this works.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

Book excerpt: ‘The Parting Glass’ from ‘Music and Mind’

By Richard Powers, edited by Renée Fleming

It’s morning, and dozens of thrushes, wrens, and warblers are singing their hearts out in the trees beneath the window of my house in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Spring in Appalachia, and you know how that piece goes. Some of the singers live here year‑round. Others are passing through on long journeys. I listen as the dawn chorus reaches its wild peak. No one is conducting. The music exhilarates me, and clearly the singers are thrilling one another. If you ask a scientist why birds sing, the answer will deal in courtship and territory. But if you asked the bird, and if you could understand its reply, it would probably be something like, “Because I have to, and it feels so good.”

I put on some music of my own, adding a descant to the morning mayhem. Here’s a miracle that I hope I’ll never get used to: I can stream just about any song ever recorded, any time I want, in every season, from any room in my house in the woods. I call up a fine old Scottish‑Irish song that always goes right through me: “The Parting Glass.” The song is at least four hundred years old, and no one is sure who wrote the music or the words. Traditional, as they say. And I have dozens of covers to choose from. I play one by three Canadian women singing a cappella, in crystalline harmony, as if they’re already a step or two beyond the grave.

The song partakes of an old Celtic tradition. When a guest rose to leave the party and climbed up in the stirrups of his horse, he’d be given a stirrup cup or parting glass, one more drink to fortify him for the night’s trip back home. The song is in the voice of a guest taking such a leave:

So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befall,
And gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all.

Words fill my house and spill out into the woods. It’s just a folk song— plaintive, playful, a little melancholy. The tune traces out the basic moves of tonal expectation, traveling from home and back again with open grace. The harmonies are steadfast and simple, with no great surprises. The lyrics, however, are a little cheeky, a nice mix of sass, stoicism, and self‑effacement, even though it’s easy to hear that this singer is setting out on a journey somewhat longer than a night’s ride:

Of all the money that e’er I spent,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done,
Alas it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall.
So fill to me the parting glass:
Good night and joy be with you all!

A summing up, then, with the singers taking stock before a last depar‑ ture. The words could be about nothing at all—they might be in a foreign language, and I would still hear the farewell. It’s there in the suspended harmonies, in the way the chords waver between major and minor. I’m off now, out of here: drink to me, drink to my disappearance. The Celts have always been good at emigration and goodbyes.

For reasons that science may never quite put its finger on, I get chills and my eyes start to water. It happens to me with music, far more than with any other art. Music has a startling ability to make a listener sad over noth‑ ing, simply by unfolding chords in a certain order and weaving them through with a tuneful filigree. It’s not clear what the adaptive advantage of this might be, but the right pitches in the right rhythm can overwhelm us with sorrow. And we love every minute of that harmonious grief.

I’m reassured by a quick online search that reveals at least twenty health benefits of crying. The sheer abundance of weeping’s benefits makes me laugh and laughing brings at least ten benefits more. I don’t know why I chose this song—an evening’s last farewell—to add to the birds’ exuberant morning chorus. I don’t understand why I would willingly choose sadness. But it feels so good. It’s a bracing dive into a cold spring, a glimpse of mid‑ night just before breakfast.

Countless clinical studies have now tied the secret of health to moving. There is also great health in being moved, something that produces similar physiology. Think about the old meanings buried in the etymology of “emotion.” To move and to feel are complements, and the emotion that a tune triggers is a tune‑up in how to move more deeply through the wider world. Music makes us go somewhere. It propels us into new states, new vantages, new emotional affordances. If you ask a scientist why music is healthy, the answer will come in units of cortisol and heart rate and blood‑ oxygen levels. But if you ask this listener, I’d say that music is an off‑line cognitive therapy. By making us sad in the absence of real tragedy, it leaves us more adept in sadness when life calls for the real thing.

Being moved by a song holds the key to mental health. Music says: “Here’s what happens to us. We and those around us move like chords unfolding in time, throwing off fantastic sparks and harmonies. And then the chords end. Here’s how to feel sad about that. And how to hear how that sadness, too, will pass.”

I suspect that none of the dozen species of birds singing outside my window know that one day their song will stop. But every human does. We carry the knowledge of our own death with us all life long. Awareness of mortality is the first and hardest challenge to our sanity. In my life, the best consolation for my approaching death has always been to sing it and to hear it being sung. I think that’s why the world’s great sacred ways of coping with death are so often built around music. So many times in this life I’ve heard friends say, “I love this piece. Play this at my funeral.” Music can train us in goodbyes. In giving us a little taste of our own finitude, it lets us, for a moment, feel the infinite.

“The Parting Glass” lasts only two and a half minutes. Soon enough, it reaches its final stanza. But in those one hundred and fifty seconds, the song lights up my brain in several ways. First, there is the sheer glory of the sound: three clear voices tuned tightly to each other. Then there is the stepwise tune and its dramatic pauses, its phrases always taking their leave, always coming home. Those simple syncopations lay out the plainest two‑step dance, reminding me of all the dancing I won’t be doing when I no longer have a body. A good song—a great movement—is a way of saying, Dance now, if only in your mind, for there is no dancing where you’re going. Finally, there is music’s uniquely vertical trick, stacking up companion lines in step with the one that my ear keys to. The tune contains its own accompani‑ ment, and all the regions of my brain fire in harmony. It reminds me of what good company I’ve spent my life in.

Of all the comrades that e’er I’ve had
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had
They’ d wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all!

Of all music’s health benefits, teaching us how to be okay with our own disappearance may be the deepest. A good song lets me hear how the chords go on, far beyond the double bar. As another good song puts it:

Music, music for a while
Will all our cares beguile.

That it can do so with sadness is a pure delight.

“The Parting Glass” does what all good songs do: it ends. It gets up in the stirrups, takes a last deep drink, and is off. My Canadian singers spring a surprise minor final cadence, and the tune is done. The morning chorus starts to disperse. I land back on Earth, turn from the window, and get on with my full day’s work. For what it’s worth, I get a ton done.

As I fall asleep, the night is all melancholy owls and mournful whip‑ poor‑wills. Birdsong, too, knows the uses of sadness. At two a.m., when I briefly wake, there is nothing but dead silence. I’m fine with that. The song is ended, but the melody lingers on. Even in the long rests, I can hear how the morning chorus will begin again in the dark, just before sunrise, for whoever may or may not be there to listen.

From ‘Music and Mind’ edited by Renée Fleming, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Richard Powers.

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