Opera Singer Turned Neuroscientist Uses Music as Medicine for Dementia, Autism, and More
Opera Singer Turned Neuroscientist Uses Music as Medicine for Dementia, Autism, and More

Epoch Times: Tell me about your plans for prescription iPods. What goes into making a therapeutic playlist?

Ms. Maguire: It’s a clinical interface model, and I’m looking for funding from NIH. It’s a huge endeavor. I’m designing interventions using the principles from it.

Basically, it takes all the demographics from an individual: age; gender; BMI; weight; psychological profile; introvert/extrovert; unique psychiatric profile; pharmaceutical drugs and side effects from those; and your music preferences (if you hate opera I’m not going to give you opera for another year or so). There is also cultural background. I’m Irish, so a good Celtic song comes on and I’ll want to listen to that. Don’t underestimate genetic influences on music preferences. We’re not that far removed from our countries of origin.

I also look at schedule of activities, and schedule of issues. So if you have a hard time waking up in the morning, there is a piece of music that will escort you happily and cheerfully and functionally out of your bed and into the day with a happy heart, and a bright mind. All sorts of music will do that.

Music can spur you toward your healthy, desired outcome. There’s capability of so much transformation through music.

I also look at your clinical best case diagnosis. Do you need to lose 10 pounds and exercise at 3:00 every day? Then the music will start at ten to 3:00. It will help you put your shoes on, and get out the door with a kick in your step. What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to garden? Do you want to start cooking? Do you want to do mosaics? There is music for each of those. Mahler, for example, is full of nature sounds. You hear a Mahler piece and you think, “I want to go to the garden shop.” Music can spur you toward your healthy, desired outcome. There’s capability of so much transformation through music.

Every 10 to 14 days you get a new playlist which builds upon the pre-established blends from music you never heard before.


Epoch Times: If music has the power to transform us for the better, are there certain songs that can harm us or keep us stuck?

Ms. Maguire: Research finds that depressed people choose depressing music. They choose lower keys, lower tempi, and morbid, drooping songs. Why? Because it matches the way they feel. It matches their low heart rate and their droopy physiology. So when they listen to that music, they’re not alone anymore. That music keeps them company.

For post-traumatic stress disorder veterans, they love heavy metal, hard metal, because that’s what they’re living. They have this grinding chaos in their head.

But music has the power to transform, change key, raise the tempo, and leave them on a sunny hillside for two minutes and they don’t even realize it’s happened. They just realize they feel different at the end of that song.

So therapeutically, you want to get in through the problem. You want to get in through what’s working in the brain, and then tap into dysfunctional areas through that platform.


Epoch Times: So if composers and performers have a good understanding of music and neuroscience they can make music to elicit a very specific physiological response.

Ms. Maguire: Absolutely. I want to get into a position where I can train a whole field of performers. Music therapists work behind closed doors and they’re usually not professionally trained as performers. I’m trying to develop a field of medical musicians who know exactly what they’re doing and can go in like a precision scalpel and shift and change and transform.

From my experience I would say only about three percent of music has therapeutic value. Like Beethoven—he writes great stuff, but he’s all over the map. But he’ll have 20 measures in one of his symphonies that is just sublime. It’s so powerfully beautiful, relaxing, and idyllic. It’s like meditation in a bottle. So you want to take those 20 measures and give them to a good composer and say, “I need 12 minutes of this.”

Or the ‘Flower Duet’ from Lakmé by Delibes—it’s a wonderful duet and it’s gorgeous. I want to give it to a composer and say, “Spin this out for 8 and 1/2 minutes. Take what’s here and make it longer. Let’s turn it into a therapeutic application.”


Epoch Times: What has changed in the past few decades that we’re shifting our thinking of music as merely entertainment to a valid form of therapy?

Ms. Maguire: The top researchers are very interested in music because it’s the only thing that brings Alzheimer’s patients back. Drugs do not work, and they have a lot of side effects. But music has relatively zero side effects. It works, it stops the problem, it helps the behavior, and it helps the caregiver.

In Alzheimer’s, music is said to improve overall quality of their lives, provides social interaction with peers and caregivers, provides a sense of self (they remember circumstances of many songs they remember) and sense of empowerment (in that they can control their memory of songs). It improves activity rate and simply provides pleasure for them.

Music also reduces pain and pain is a sensory thing. We’re feeling it. Music is also very sensory. The insula [a region of the brain deep inside the cerebral cortex] is very engaged when you’re listening to emotional music. It hijacks the system that pain grinds into.

That’s a very specific reason why this works, and why you don’t just play anything. For pain you want music that is emotional and very sensuous—long lines, rich, robust orchestration. Again, you want to keep in mind baseline heart rate of the patient and any other issues.

It also depends on where the pain is too. Music that is going to relax your hands is different than music that is going to take the pain away from your feet. For feet you want music that has movement in it. Whereas if you’re trying to take away hand pain, you want to play something soft and lush on the piano. The brain has all sorts of mirror neurons. So when you see someone pick something up, your motor cortex is doing that too. When you hear piano playing, subconsciously, your fingers are also moving in premotor areas.

There’s quite a few studies on Mozart’s K. 448. Just five minutes of this piano concerto stops epilepsy significantly, even in comatose patients.

There’s quite a few studies on Mozart’s’ K. 448. Just five minutes of this piano concerto stops epilepsy significantly, even in comatose patients.

So what I did this summer is dig into this thing. I printed out the music. It’s a concerto for two pianos, four hands. And it hijacks the system immediately. It starts out with a huge spread that outlines a D major chord.

In K. 448, fast progressive rhythmic elements (all within the first 16 measures) quickly compound and go from half notes, into to quarter notes, trills, triplets, dotted rhythms, syncopations, eighth and 16th notesall of which serve to engage, pair, and reshift neural networks through physiological response. The clinical implication is that epileptic pathways may progressively reform through precision music and transform to normal function.

Thematic elements in K. 448 begin and build rapidly, using many of the most compelling, powerful musical elements and in very short order. These include upward arpeggiated scales, downward cascading roulades, fast octave oscillations, and sustained ground bass.

Epoch Times: Does the key a song is in also have an influence on physiology?

Maguire: It really does. It has to do with what area of tissue it targets. It has a frequency. You can play the song ‘If I Had a Million Dollars’ in the original key and then knock it down a step and the whole mood changes.

The happy stuff is written in the ascending circle of fifths: C,G, and D. And the sadder, nostalgic, sentimental, comforting music is written in the descending circle of fifths: F, B flat, E flat. I’ve played hundreds of funerals to pay my way through schools. That music uses all these dark keys. You rarely find happy pieces written in D flat. You will find nostalgia, pastoral, and melancholy instead.

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Contact: [email protected] or [email protected]

× close