Monday, March 30, 2009

Musical Pharmacology

The New York Times
March 29, 2009
By Matthew Gurewitsch

Composing Concertos in the Key of Rx

REMEMBER the Mozart Effect? As propounded by the news media, the message was that listening to Mozart made children smarter. The science was full of holes, but the notion appealed, and a growing body of research has since suggested that music, classical music in particular, is somehow good for us. The field is still short on evidence, but it has started a lively conversation between scientists and other experts.

“Listening to finer music and attending concerts on a consistent basis makes your real age about four years younger,” Dr. Michael F. Roizen — the chief wellness officer of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, said recently. “Whether that’s due to stress relief or other properties, we see decreases in all-cause mortality, reflecting slower aging of arteries as well as cancer-related and environmental factors. Attending sports events like soccer or football offers none of these benefits.”

That music touches the core of our being is a discovery as old as human consciousness. Plato grappled with the powers of music in “The Laws” and other dialogues, and he was hardly the first to do so. Shakespeare in several of his most poignant scenes dramatized music’s soothing effect on troubled spirits.

Healers of many sorts try to harness music for therapeutic purposes, if only as an adjunct to crystals, perfumes and green tea. But could music ever take its place as medicine?

One expert who is betting that it will is Vera Brandes, the director of the research program in music and medicine at the Paracelsus Private Medical University in Salzburg, Austria. “I am the first musical pharmacologist,” Ms. Brandes said last fall in Vienna. In that capacity she is developing medication in the form of music, dispensed as a prescription. To market the product line, she helped found Sanoson (, a company that also designs custom music systems for medical facilities.

“We are preparing for the launch of our therapies in Germany and Austria in the fall of 2009,” she said, “and are anticipating the U.S. launch in 2010.”

Here is how the treatment works. Once the doctor has established a diagnosis, the patient is sent home with a listening protocol and music loaded onto a player much like an iPod. Timing is critical.

“Calming music heard at an ascending point in your circadian cycle wouldn’t calm you,” Ms. Brandes said. “It may even annoy you.” The technology — which includes special headsets and formatting as protection against piracy — is proprietary. A patent application has been filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

The music is proprietary too. To avoid the interference of personal associations, the tracks consist entirely of original material. “In our research,” Ms. Brandes said, “we have found that when people are listening to music they know, their reactions are entirely different.”

Dr. Roizen and Ms. Brandes crossed paths last August at a symposium entitled “Music and the Brain,” presented by the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Orchestra during the orchestra’s residency at the Salzburg Festival. Dr. Roizen, who is an author (with Mehmet C. Oz) of “You: The Owner’s Manual” and its numerous best-selling sequels, delivered solid substance with a showman’s flair in his talk “The Beneficial Effects of Music on Your Health.” Ms. Brandes, who was working on the program for Mozart & Science 2008, an international congress in Vienna last November, was in attendance and found that she shared with Dr. Roizen a passion for quantifying health effects that many have long taken on faith.

Since Plato and Shakespeare, natural scientists, many of them musicians themselves, have been looking at music with an ever more analytical eye. In the utilitarian 20th century, Muzak built an empire (now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings) on the premise that background music in the workplace could boost productivity. Dr. Oliver Sacks, that inveterate explorer of uncharted regions of neurology, devoted his latest best-seller, “Musicophilia,” to freakish effects of music on the brain. And as anyone who owns an iPod knows, personal playlists can work small wonders on mood and well-being.

But how?

Like apothecaries of old, who distilled extracts from nature’s store of herbs and plants, Ms. Brandes and her associates analyze music of all kinds to tease out its “active ingredients,” which are then blended and balanced into medicinal compounds. Though they steer clear of gross pathologies or infectious diseases, they claim their methods have broad application in psychosomatic disorders, pain management and what Ms. Brandes calls “diseases of civilization”: anxiety, depression, insomnia and certain types of arrhythmia. The pharmacopeia stands at about 55 tracks of medicinal music, with more in the pipeline.

In a pilot study, which in 2008 received a citation at the annual scientific meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Baltimore, Ms. Brandes and international associates investigated the effects of music on patients suffering from hypertension for which no organic cause can be found.

“Conventionally hypertensive patients are treated with beta blockers, which suppress their symptoms,” Ms. Brandes said. “Music can address the psychosomatic root causes.”

According to her study, listening to a specially designed music program for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for four weeks, patients experienced clinically significant improvements in heart-rate variability, a major indicator of autonomous nervous function. In her next study Ms. Brandes will subject these findings to a full-fledged clinical trial.

Formerly a producer of musical events and recordings, Ms. Brandes, 52, masterminded the international breakthrough of the harp phenomenon Andreas Vollenweider and staged Keith Jarrett’s legendary concert in Cologne, Germany, to name just two highlights of an impressive résumé. But a near-fatal car crash in 1995 caused her to begin contemplating a change of career.

“I broke Vertebrae 11 and 12, missing the spinal cord by a millimeter,” Ms. Brandes said. “The doctor said, ‘I can’t do much for you for a while, but you can sing if you like.’ ” The medical team expected to keep her immobilized for 10 to 14 weeks.

As it happened, Ms. Brandes was sharing her room with a Buddhist, whose friends came and chanted daily. After just two weeks in the hospital, an M.R.I. showed that her spine was completely healed. “Everyone said it was a miracle,” Ms. Brandes said. “They sent me home. It got me thinking.”

Three years later, even more decisive for the work that was to follow, Ms. Brandes spent three months at the bedside of her mother, who was in a coma with a rare blood cancer.

“I gave her a headset, and I played music for her,” Ms. Brandes said. “Because I knew her so well, I could tell from the subtlest changes in her hands and face what she liked and what she didn’t like. My mother was my first case study.”

Initially the dying woman responded best to the classical Spanish guitar music she had always enjoyed: Andrés Segovia, Narciso Yepes. But as her condition worsened, those old favorites seemed to distress her, and gentle Minimalism — “nothing complex,” Ms. Brandes said — proved more beneficial.

As suggestive and as personally meaningful as this experience must have been, Ms. Brandes, who holds no advanced degree in medicine or science, knew that her nascent theories would never gain acceptance without clinical trials by the book. “From the first,” she said, “I was determined to satisfy the strictest Western scientific criteria.”

Subjects in the studies wear smart watches that monitor seven physiological values, including heart rate and electrical muscular activity. (The placebos in her work are nature sounds.)

In general what has power to heal has potential to harm. In the case of music, the truism appears not to apply. Allegations of adverse reactions, addiction or overdoses, to cite some of the most serious dangers, are rare, and those that might be cited seem either flatly incredible or specious in the extreme. In Wagner’s time some predicted that “Tristan und Isolde” would drive people insane, but where were the mental cases? And in our time we hear of military interrogators administering music nonstop at deafening volume as a form of torture lite. But surely the torture lies in sleep deprivation, repetition and trauma to the inner ear, not in exposure to the music as such.

In the fall, over several days in Vienna, I was able to sample Sanoson’s music at appropriate times of day. A wake-up program after a half-hour nap began with nature sounds, developed a soft-rock rhythm, added a voice singing wordlessly and ended on a more chugging beat, sending me off in fine form for whatever the rest of my day might hold. A soothing evening program sounded like a snatch of mock Minimalism, unembellished by the variations and surprises that make concert music by Terry Riley, Philip Glass and John Adams a lot more interesting.

But the objective of Sanoson composers (Ms. Brandes herself and two others, their anonymity guarded religiously) is not to write concert music of independent aesthetic merit, any more than an apothecary is out to concoct choice cordials. It is to deliver specific stimuli — dosages of rhythm, harmony or dissonance and timbre — at the appropriate time and in an effective sequence.

Similar principles, applied to more nebulous ends, underlie the Internet-based beta site Sourcetone Interactive Radio ( Billed as “the world’s premiere music health service,” Sourcetone streams music in a dozen genres, choosing tracks according to the user’s mood as indicated on a graphic Emotion Wheel. Company literature says that “the service is designed to promote health through the power of music by delivering playlists that promote desired emotional states such as relaxation, invigoration, stimulation and happiness.”

A glorified jukebox? Interviewed in New York in February, the psychologist Jeff Berger, a founder and executive vice president of Sourcetone, bristled at that description, even as he backed off from any specific medical claims. Yet he expressed hope that Sourcetone would in time prove valuable — in the treatment of brain injuries, for instance — in ways he declined to elaborate.

Though that would seem a stretch, Sourcetone uses research conducted jointly with the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Harvard Medical School, where the neurologist Gottfried Schlaug studies the effects of musical activity on brain function and plasticity. Dr. Schlaug (who at one time seriously considered a career as an organist and choir director) said recently that his work with Sourcetone has essentially consisted of quantifying subjective personal responses to specific pieces of music in an objective way.

Of far deeper medical interest, he added, are his efforts to provide a “neurobiological substrate” for existing forms of music therapy already in wide use: to prove that they work and how they work. An example would be melodic-intonation therapy, which uses singing to help stroke patients relearn language.

“I think it’s important to engage and make music,” Dr. Schlaug said, “not just to listen.”

Stefan Koelsch, a senior research fellow in neurocognition of music and language at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, agrees, and is working on participatory musical treatments for depression. But in the long term, he sees broader possibilities.

“Physiologically, it’s perfectly plausible that music would affect not only psychiatric conditions but also endocrine, autonomic and autoimmune disorders,” he said. “I can’t say music is a pill to abolish these diseases. But my vision is that we can come up with things to help. This work is so important. So many pills have horrible side effects, both physiological and psychological. Music has no side effects, or no harmful ones.”

As Ms. Brandes sees it, some things down the road may be very different, but others should not change. “Say a patient comes in suffering from depression,” she said. “The first step is always to see the physician. But then there will be the choice of treatment options: the shrink, Prozac or music.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Children are not always escaping from the mundane, but from the horrific--from all kinds of strong, frightening feelings they have; they don't really mind a little anxiety and heart failure, so long as they know it will end all right. -Maurice Sendak

One of the most frightening, loveliest books will finally make it to the big screen this fall. (Thank you, Alisa, for sending me the trailer.)

From Maurice Sendak's 1964 acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal:
Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. But what is just as obvious--and what is too often overlooked--is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood--the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of all Wild Things--that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled...

I feel like I’ve just been born, even though I’m getting on.

-PJ Harvey (‘Pocket Knife’)

You can dye your hair but it's the one thing you can't change
Can't run away from yourself.

-Pulp (‘Help the Aged’)

Behold this bevy of brunette babes born on March 25th:

Flannery O'Connor

Machiko Kyo

Gloria Steinem

Aretha Franklin

'Tis Herself (looking exactly the same as in the '70s!)

I wish I was special, but today I'm number one, second to no one, no sweat, I'm clean, nothing can touch me...

..and a great horoscope to boot!
Free Will Astrology
Don't you think it's time you toned down your manic aspirations? Aren't you curious about the sweet, sensitive success that could be yours if only you got really calm and peaceful? Wouldn't it be interesting to explore the more manageable opportunities that might become available by accepting your limitations with humble equanimity? APRIL FOOL! Don't you dare do any of those things, Aries. Your spiritual duty for the foreseeable future is to be a brave initiator of ingenious experiments . . . a high-powered self-starter who competes primarily with yourself . . . a pioneering warrior who's in quest of transcendent exploits that make it unnecessary to go to war.

Monday, March 16, 2009


My favorite Irish band.

Ireland’s Tough Peace

The New York Times
March 16, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

Belfast, Northern Ireland

IN Northern Ireland the squalid and brutal murders of two unarmed, off-duty soldiers taking delivery of pizzas, followed by the execution of a police officer who was responding to a call for help, achieved what all acts of terrorism intend — the release into the body politic of the poisonous spores of fear.

In this case, the fear was all the more potent because it infected the psyche of all those who had lived through the Troubles, regenerating the memories of the darkness. The stigmata of those partly repressed memories were suddenly uncovered and they seemed as vivid as when we first encountered them. There was that almost forgotten surge of fear, then the uncontrolled free fall of emotions rushing through sorrow to anger before stalling in a sense of helplessness.

We recognized and acknowledged, too, the rituals that accompany such deaths — the television pictures of swaths of flowers that transform murder spots into temporary shrines; the bewildered expressions of those who lay them; the white-suited forensic experts carrying plastic bags; the voices of politicians in competitive condemnation. The fear also infected our children, many of them asking their parents questions about history to which it was difficult to find coherent or explanatory answers. In schools some children — and not just the children of police officers — openly expressed an ominous apprehension about the future.

The spoken and unspoken question was whether we were about to see the return of the Troubles. There was an implicit fear that the period of political agreement had merely been a mirage, what Seamus Heaney in his poem “North” described as “exhaustions nominated peace” — a temporary and arbitrary pause for respite.

Certainly, the dissident Republicans who carried out these murders, whether they called themselves the Real I.R.A. or the Continuity I.R.A., must have exulted over what their bullets had achieved, and like all jihadists who believe that killing people is the blood-petaled path to glory, must too in those immediate hours after the killings have felt a gratifying sense of their newly claimed power.

But something quite remarkable has happened in this country as the hours have turned into days. It started with ordinary people interviewed on television and radio who invariably expressed an abhorrence of “returning” or “going back.” At first it was clearly the product of a deep-seated fear of regression towards the abyss, a fear that the peace process itself would crack asunder with the impact of violence, but then the fear turned to anger — an anger that a small group of fanatics with little or no popular support should seek to subvert the will of the people of Ireland.

Across towns and cities people of all traditions assembled to protest in dignified but powerful silence. There was a constant reiteration that what had been achieved could not now be lost, that a peace process, for all its problems, could not be usurped and subverted by the gun.

Something else remarkable happened. In a country where politicians can argue about which way the wind is blowing, they instead lined up shoulder to shoulder, so physically and rhetorically close there was not the tiniest chink or warp of divergence, and expressed their unity in uncharacteristically crystalline language. So we saw Martin McGuinness — once a senior commander in the I.R.A., now a deputy minister in the local government — standing alongside the province’s Protestant first minister and chief constable as he labeled the killers “traitors,” his anger palpable.

Indeed, it was a crossing-the-Rubicon moment for many nationalists as their leaders condemned the killings and urged their followers to pass on any information to the police. What only a decade earlier would have been denounced as “touting” now became the moral responsibility of every citizen.

And then there was Jackie McDonald, a hard-bitten leader of the Ulster Defense Association — a Protestant paramilitary organization that had engaged in many sectarian murders — among the thousands who turned up for the vigil at Belfast’s City Hall. There as a passionate advocate for peace, he praised Mr. McGuinness for his public statements.

There was soon evidence also that paramilitaries on both sides were in communication with their former enemies, offering assurances. So what we initially thought was a potentially dangerous attack on what has been achieved in Northern Ireland, and what we momentarily feared might be the beginning of disintegration, has in fact served only to demonstrate the strength of the process of reconciliation and the inviolable strength of a community that has made its political differences subservient to an overwhelming desire for peace.

So even now, while in brooding housing estates blighted by poverty and corrupted by the commerce and culture of drugs, young men made bitter by the scourge of history throw their bricks and bottles and stones and perhaps dream of more killings; or in some shed deep in South Armagh where a car bomb is painstakingly being assembled, the dissidents that remain must struggle to suppress the insistent truth that while they have the power to kill, each killing merely serves to strengthen what they wish to destroy.

And so the other night when my teenage daughter briefly turned her eyes away from “The Simpsons” to ask in a curiously tentative voice if the Troubles were coming back, I was able to say, “No, no they’re not.” And what I also know is that despite its painful human tragedies, the past week has not been about going back but about how far we’ve come.

David Park is the author of “The Truth Commissioner” and “Oranges From Spain.”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Wreath Upon the Dead

This Saint Patrick’s Day, I will not be drinking the requisite green beer, nor will I be drinking the offensively named ‘Irish car bombs’ (How would Americans like it if they went to Ireland and were offered a drink called ‘United Flight 93 death trap’ or ‘World Trade Center suicide jump’?), nor will I be doing shots of Bushmills whiskey (who discriminate against Irish Catholics in their hiring practices). I most likely won’t be drinking anything at all.

Why, you may ask? Well, for starters, I have no interest in celebrating a non-Irish saint who attempted to eliminate a rich, indigenous, Irish tradition, replacing it with the anti-female/anti-sexuality/anti-earth Hell-fire of Catholicism. Nor do I see how getting shit faced is a fitting tribute to my ancestors who left the poverty and political turmoil of Ireland for the discrimination and hardship in America (like “no Irish need apply” or dying in the anthracite coal mines like my great grandfather). I have about as much interest in commodified Irishness as I have in Brittany Spears.

At least Scranton- where my sister called me from today’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade- is a true hotbed of Irish republicanism. (Republican meaning desiring a united Ireland, not as in elephants and Rush Limbaugh). Scranton is not just the boyhood home of VP Joe Biden, or the setting for “The Office,” it also has one of the largest St. Paddy’s Day parades in the country. While the bars open at 6 AM and there are plenty of drunken, overgrown boys in rugby shirts, Scranton is also home to a very politically active Irish community. Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness came to Scranton, instead of NY or Boston, during the infancy of the Irish peace process during the Clinton years for this very reason. (Clinton, in fact, was the first US president to grant them visas to visit the US and invited them to the White House, much to the chagrin of the British government. In fact, Adams’ and McGuinness’ faces weren’t even allowed on British TV during those years because of their affiliation with the IRA. So much for freedom of the press.)

I’m disheartened by the recent killings of 2 young British soldiers in Antrim and a Catholic police officer in Belfast by republican splinter groups. (‘Had they but courage equal to desire?’) But am encouraged by the strong denouncements from republicans, including Martin McGuinness, the erstwhile leader of the IRA turned statesman. His comments show how far we’ve come in the past 10 years: Of the attackers, he said they are "traitors to the island of Ireland..."

They have betrayed the political desires, hopes and aspirations of all of the people who live on this island….I was a member of the IRA, but that war is over now. The people responsible for [Saturday night's] incident are clearly signaling that they want to resume or restart that war. Well, I deny their right to do that…I will stand for all democrats against their attempts to plunge us back into conflict; to see soldiers on the streets; to see more checkpoints; to see houses being raided and to see people being dragged back to interrogation centres….Those days are over. They can never come back again.

So this Tuesday, instead of singing Danny Boy, I'll be thinking of Derry and Belfast, and will continue to be hopeful about peace in Ireland. 800 years has been a long time to wait.

Tiocfaidh ár lá!