The Sound Health Network is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Renée Fleming.
Our mission is to promote research and public awareness about the impact of music on health and wellness. Visit our website here.
SHN Monthly Newsletter
February 2022
Music Improvisation and its Therapeutic Applications

In Conversation
Playing By Ear: Regina Carter Takes Us Down Memory Lane
This month, the Sound Health Network sat down with Regina Carter, accomplished jazz violinist, teacher, and MacArthur 'Genius', to hear how she developed her unique musical voice, and what improvisation means to her.

SHN: Can you share one of your first memories with music?

Regina: I remember my grandmother, my mother’s mother, she was a pianist and she’d stay with us often. She graduated from Morris Brown in 1915 with a degree in piano pedagogy. She’d play at our house; she was the first organist and pianist in the church I grew up in. I remember being a toddler and I wanted my dad to sit at the piano with me and play. Once in a while, he’d hit a sound or chord and he’d do something, ’I’d say play that again.’ He had no idea what he done; he couldn’t do it again. 
SHN: He was improvising. 

Regina: Exactly.

SHN: Has music ever had a healing effect on you?

Regina: Yes, it felt more like a connection. I knew music was the thing where I found myself. I started playing piano at two and I started learning the violin with The Suzuki Method. My teacher added words, so I could also look at a rhythm instead of having to dissect it. When I was four, I was on TV and I played a tune, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. There was a round stage with a star hanging over me.  There wasn’t a live audience, but I knew that this was it. Maybe it was knowing that I wasn’t just playing at home, that people could see me, there was something about it; I found my thing, the stage is where I feel home. 

SHN: How do you use musical improvisation in your performances?
Regina: Melodies are always set. If I manipulate the melody you’ll know. And over those harmonies I’ll start to improvise. It’s just about making something up on the spot. We all do it.  Every day in our lives whether it's music or whatever we have to improvise. 

Sometimes when I’m in a concert, I feel like I’m going into a place. I don’t know where that place is. The whole band goes there too. We’re in a space where we can communicate without words. It’s such a high and it’s a space that I can’t make happen. It just comes when it comes. 
SHN: It’s a moment, unplanned and instantaneous. 

Regina: Yes. Once on a gig, I had a substitute on piano, he was like ‘wow, I hope someone recorded it,’ and he felt it too. When those moments happen, even if you try, they never get captured, they’re not supposed to, it’s for those there in that moment. I feel like I can let go more when I’m performing live.  There is no going back and doing something over. 

SHN: What does it feel like to be in the zone?

Regina: I remember a therapist told me once it’s like daydreaming, but I don’t know what I’m thinking about.  It’s like going to sleep, you don’t remember you dreamed but you’re aware you have. It’s knowing something is happening but you’re not conscious of the happening. Then, it’s like being sucked out of something. If the audience is live and there is an applause, the applause snaps you out of it, but you don’t really want to come out of there. 

SHN: How is improvising different for you compared with playing a piece from memory? Do you find it more powerful? Does it make you feel more connected to the moment or the audience?

Regina: If I’m playing a piece from memory, it depends on the type of piece. Most tunes I’m playing from memory; I learn everything by ear, I don’t want to get stuck on the paper. If it is a tune with word, I learn it from a vocalist, the most basic form, just like a plain old cake. I learn it that way. For me it’s easier to get into the music if I internalize it. If I’m playing a concert with an orchestra, even if I memorize it, there’s so much more there, it’s a different risk taking and sometimes that’s harder.

Memorizing a jazz standard and improvising isn’t black and white. I don’t always improvise, sometimes I just play the melody. I don’t always connect with an audience although I want to but sometimes it’s not always there. You’re like is it an audience or an oil painting? She laughs. Sometimes it's cultural. Sometimes the audience needs permission. But in the end, you need that energy from the audience, music is there to help us all through something.
To hear more from Regina Cater, and how musical improvisation can be therapeutic, join us for our next webinar on February 23, 12pmPT/3pm ET by clicking on this link. She'll be joined by music therapist John Carpente, PhD, MT-BC, LCAT and neuroscientist Psyche Loui, PhD.
Research Spotlight: Musical Improvisation and its Therapeutic Applications

This scoping review looks at various "creative arts therapies" (art, dance, music, poetry) to pinpoint a theoretical framework for the psychological outcomes. Additionally, an overview is provided overview of empirical CATs studies dealing with therapeutic factors and/or mechanisms of change, and a detailed analysis of these therapeutic factors which are grouped into domains.

This meta-analysis explores what areas of creativity may be domain general versus domain specific by looking at functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of musical creativity, drawing, and literary creativity.

This paper includes webinar panel guest John Carpente. Part of an NEA Featured Project, this paper explores how music therapy may facilitate skills in areas affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such as social interaction and communication. Researchers show that a randomized clinical trial (RCT) did not support use of improvisation music therapy for symptom reduction in children with autism.

Arkin, Przysinda, Pfeifer, Zeng, and Loui 2019, Gray Matter Correlates of Creativity in Musical Improvisation
A pilot program uses a musical improvisation continuation task, gray matter volume in memory formation, perceptual categorization and sensory integration and relates brain structure to performance in creative musical improvisation ability, from the lab of webinar panelist Psyche Loui.

A study involving four participants in a vocal jazz ensemble that examined social connections before and after a performance of pre-composed music and improvised music. The performance that included improvised music was linked to an increase in oxytocin. Higher levels of plasma oxytocin in the improvised condition may perhaps be attributed to the social effects of improvising musically with others. 

Musical therapists use improvisation to free inhibitions or limitations that block recovery. fMRI studies of jazz musicians are explored to understand what framework music improvisation plays in showing how brain activity is affected with those neurologically impaired, in this review.
Related Conferences and Events

April 7 - 9, 2022

April 23 - 26, 2022

May 12-13 2022 Submissions close March 11th, 2022
Job Opportunities in Music and Health

Assistant Professor, Tenure-Track, Interaction Design, Music and Sound, New York University

Postdoctoral Research Assistant, University of Reading

MRC Doctoral Training Partnership PhD studentship: investigating hearing health in musicians, University of Manchester

Postdoctoral Positions, LIVELab, McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind

Graduate Trainee Opening, MAPLE (Music, Acoustics, Perception and LEarning) lab at McMaster University

Graduate Scholars and Post Doctoral Scholars, CD-CREATE Network (Complex Dynamics of Brain and Behavior) at McGill University

Doctoral students, The Subjectivity Lab, Dept. of Psychology, Northeastern University

PhD students, Language, Attention, Music, and Audition (LAMA) lab, University of Toronto - Mississauga. Candidates interested in studying the development of auditory processing should email Dr. Christina Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden at [email protected]

Funding Opportunities

Did you miss our webinar on applying for NIH and NEA grants? You can find the slides and webinar presentation with Q&A here.

NEA Research Labs funds transdisciplinary research teams grounded in the social and behavioral sciences, yielding empirical insights about the arts for the benefit of arts and non-arts sectors alike.

Over the next five years, Creative Forces®: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Military Healing Arts Network intends to provide $2.5 million in new research funding to support feasibility/pilot studies and subsequent randomized-controlled trials (RCTs) or other large-scale studies to address priority research questions identified by Creative Forces in art therapy and music therapy.

NEA Research Grants in the Arts funds research studies that investigate the value and/or impact of the arts, either as individual components of the U.S. arts ecology or as they interact with each other and/or with other domains of American life.

This funding opportunity is intended to: (1) increase our understanding of how music affects the brain when it is used therapeutically and/or (2) use that knowledge to better develop evidence-based music interventions to enhance health or treat specific diseases and disorders.

This funding opportunity is intended to: (1) increase our understanding of how music affects the brain when it is used therapeutically and/or (2) use that knowledge to better develop evidence-based music interventions to enhance health or treat specific diseases and disorders.

The purpose of this FOA is to promote innovative research on music and health with an emphasis on developing music interventions aimed at understanding their mechanisms of action and clinical applications for the treatment of many diseases, disorders, and conditions.