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Talking Music and Science with Yo-Yo Ma

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

It’s not every day that an amateur guitar picker gets to play a duet with an internationally renowned classical cellist. But that was my thrill this week as I joined Yo-Yo Ma in a creative interpretation of the traditional song, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Our short jam session capped off Mr. Ma’s appearance as this year’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture.

The event, which counts The Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, and Atul Gawande among its distinguished alumni, this year took the form of a conversation on the intersection of music and science—and earned a standing ovation from a packed house of researchers, patients, and staff here on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD.

The far-ranging discussion between Ma and myself began with a brief look at his extraordinary career. When I asked what qualities lead to musical greatness, he replied: “It’s very, very simple. Learn what you need to learn by heart before you are 20. It gets harder after that.”

Born in Paris in 1955, Ma started playing the cello at age 4. Soon after, he and his family immigrated to America, where he spent most of his formative years in New York City. His musical talents and curiosity for communicating with audiences in novel ways have been recognized with numerous awards. These include the National Medal of the Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Kennedy Center Honors. Ma’s discography of more than 100 albums includes 18 Grammy Award Winners.

Brain Arias Involved in Playing MusicBefore the rapt audience at the NIH Clinical Center’s Masur Auditorium, Ma demonstrated various ways to interpret the notes and dynamics of Bach, opening the door to the fascinating topic of the neuroscience of music. As you can see in the image to your right, when a person plays a violin or other musical instrument, a variety of areas throughout the brain are activated. [1] Another recent study suggests that the human brain possesses its own “music room” in the cerebral cortex, composed of populations of neural cells that are selectively dedicated to processing the sounds of music, as opposed to sounds of speech. [2] What’s more, neuroscientists have found that certain brain cells release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control reward and pleasure, both before and during the times that people listen to musical passages with the power to give them “the chills.” [3]

Another topic raised by Ma was how the open exchange of information has served to accelerate progress not only in biomedical research, but in the making of world-class string instruments. We even touched upon the question of why music exists: what evolutionary advantage might it have provided to Homo sapiens as a species? Perhaps it was a way for social groups to join together around a common purpose and improve their chances of survival? Alas, we could reach no firm conclusions on such a complicated topic in the short time allotted. Maybe we can pick up that conversation—and pluck a few more strings on our instruments—at another time!


[1] When the brain plays music: auditory-motor interactions in music perception and production. Zatorre RJ, Chen JL, Penhune VB. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2007 Jul;8(7):547-558.

[2] Distinct Cortical Pathways for Music and Speech Revealed by Hypothesis-Free Voxel Decomposition. Norman-Haignere S, Kanwisher NG, McDermott JH. Neuron. 2015 Dec 16;88(6):1281-1296.

[3] Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre RJ. Nat Neurosci. 2011 Feb;14(2):257-262.


Yo-Yo Ma (Official Web Site)

Silk Road Ensemble (Highly-acclaimed musical project started by Ma)


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