The following news article is from the Academy of Country Music's (ACM)Tempo magazine. Read the full issue here.
Vanderbilt’s Music Cognition Lab co-director, Dr. Miriam Lense, highlights the research and valuable programs her team is working on to help uncover the benefts of using music for healing.
TEMPO: Just to kick things of, I'd love to hear a little bit about you and your history at Vanderbilt and what you do for them.
LENSE: I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery. I co-direct the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab and I’m also a clinical psychologist. The work in my lab is focused on studying the music and rhythm of social engagement and how we can use music to support social and emotional well-being, with a particular emphasis on families of children with autism and other developmental disorders.
TEMPO: Wow, that’s awesome. I know you're working specifcally on some research that ACM Lifting Lives has been helping to fund, so what is this music cognition research that you're doing?
LENSE:We are thrilled to have support from ACM Lifting Lives as well as from a National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab grant and the National Institute of Mental Health/National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. In one of our research programs we are examining the “active ingredients” of parent-child music interventions. We fnd that using music games and song is a really great way to support parent-child interactions in families of young children, including parents of young children with autism. We have created programs that use music and song to teach parents evidence-based practices for supporting their social interactions together with their child. One of the things we’re doing with the ACM Lifting Lives support is looking at how we may be changing parents’ behavior through using these music and song activities.
TEMPO: Oh wow. That’s pretty awesome. And why the music method?
LENSE:One of the reasons that we use this music-based approach is because parent-child music activities are a very, very common activity to be doing in early childhood. Many children enjoy musical activities. Many children with autism enjoy musical activities, so it’s a very natural and motivating activity. We also fnd that when parents engage in musical activities, they naturally use types of parenting behaviors that we know can be helpful for supporting children. These are things that parents don’t necessarily even think about. For example, we tend to smile more when we sing (versus speak) to children. We tend to be very positive when we’re engaging in musical interactions. Musical interactions also provide a familiar and predictable structure to support parents and children in participating in a shared experience. The predictability of musical activities helps us know what and when something may occur so it provides a platform for coordinating with one another and for practicing diferent skills. We’re looking at how these types of activities are shaping parent and child behavior.
TEMPO: Yeah, that sounds really neat. Aside from the music cognition research how else has Vanderbilt been impacted by ACM Lifting Lives’ contribution?
LENSE: We have also developed mindfulness-based music and songwriting programs. Parents of children with autism and other developmental disabilities often experience higher levels of stress and have increased rates of mental health difculties. Previous research, including pioneering work done at Vanderbilt, shows how mindfulness-based practices can be helpful for stress reduction in families of children with developmental disabilities. Music is also a very powerful tool for stress reduction and emotion regulation. We’ve now created mindfulness-based music and songwriting programs in which parents learn mindfulness-based principles and apply these principles through musical activities and songwriting activities. Parents create their own personalized mindfulness songs to support them in their practice of learning, applying, and engag-ing with the stress reduction practices. The songs are all so beautiful.
TEMPO: So those songs are just written specifcally for these families?
LENSE: Yes, the parents work with a music therapist. We work with a wonderful music therapist, Kate Kelly, MT-BC, here in Nashville but the study is currently conducted over telehealth so parents can be anywhere. During the program, parents learn mindful-ness strategies and then they put those strategies into practice by writing songs about themselves, their child, and their relationship. So, you don’t need to be a musician to participate. In fact, many of the parents do not identify as musicians. The music therapist does a lot of the musical writing but the parents engage in mindful listening, refection, and shape what they want their song to sound like and craft the lyrics to be meaningful and personalized to them.
TEMPO: Wow, that's really special. So how long have you been doing this research and how long has it been supported by ACM Lifting Lives?
LENSE: I’ve been doing this research for a long time, and I actually returned to Vanderbilt to be part of the Music Cognition Lab here. I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt starting back in 2008. I got to interact with ACM Lifting Lives then through the Williams Syndrome Music Camp led by Dr. Elisabeth Dykens. I joined the Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab in 2016. The Lab is co-directed by Dr. Reyna Gordon, who is an integrative scientist focused on neural and genetic bases of musicality. Dr. Gordon and I collaborate with each other and we also have complementary lines of research in the lab. ACM Lifting Lives has provided support in a variety of ways to Vanderbilt over the years. For these specifc projects focused on music in children and families, it’s been about a year that the Music Cognition Lab has been funded in part thanks to ACM Lifting Lives. TEMPO: That’s wonderful. And in terms of the future of music cognition research, how do you see this continuing to develop over the years. I’m assuming it will continue to grow even more and more? LENSE: Oh yes, we certainly hope so. One of the reasons that we are doing this type of work is because by understanding the behavioral and neural mechanisms of musical engage-ment, we can design the types of interventions that are going to be the most impactful for families. We also plan to look at the efects of the programs on families. We only want to put resources out in the community that are supportive and help-ful to families. Based on our fndings, we would hope to also provide resources that will be available, whether it be directly to families or to other providers — clinicians or therapists or early intervention providers — to support their work with families. For example, we’ve designed a psychoeducational parent-child music class program (the Serenade Program) and a Home Music Toolkit for families.
TEMPO: Oh awesome. And I know you spoke a lot about this research supporting families and children. But do you think like any research that you've been doing is also benefcial to a teenager or even an adult with autism? Have you explored any of that?
LENSE: Our parent-child music research program currently is focused on families of young children. Our mindfulness-based music and songwriting program for stress reduction is for parents of children of all ages. In prior studies, we’ve looked at music processing in older children, teens, and adults with autism, as well as with Williams syndrome. For example, in one study, we saw that individuals with autism, Williams syndrome, and neurotypical development all showed greater memory for (wordless) vocal melodies compared to instru-mental melodies. This may speak to the biological signifcance of human vocalizations and suggests a potential role for song in interventions. Another researcher at Vanderbilt, Dr. Blythe Corbett, directs the SENSE (Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology) Lab and is also supported in part by ACM Lifting Lives funding. She has developed SENSE Theatre®, which combines theatrical and behavioral techniques in a peer-mediated, community-based intervention for children, teens, and adults with autism.
TEMPO: That’s so wonderful. And just to wrap things up, the mission of ACM Lifting Lives is improving lives through the power of music, and personally, I feel like music is very healing. I know you mentioned that music before is a common experience, but why is connecting music with the research you're doing is so benefcial?
LENSE: Music is part of the human experience. We as humans are a musical species. We are driven to want to socially engage and interact and connect with others and music turns out to be a truly wonderful way to do that. Theories about the evolution of human musicality point to music potentially having an important role in bringing people together and supporting social bonding. Now more and more research is showing us from a basic science up through clinical and translational levels of investigation how music impacts the brain, the body and the mind to support health and well-being.
Last Updated: 3/29/2022 1:39:59 PM
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