man conducting symphony

By Sally Sapega

While research has long suggested listening to an orchestra’s performance of such well-known pieces as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro may boost the audience’s brain power—a hypothesis aptly named The Mozart Effect—Penn Medicine experts suggest those playing in the orchestra may derive the most benefits of all. 

In December 2016, those positive effects hit close to home when the Penn Medicine Symphony Orchestra performed selections from these pieces at the group’s debut concert, held at Penn’s Irvine Auditorium.

Gina Chang, a second year medical student in the Perelman School of Medicine, started the orchestra last spring with fellow student Dan Zhang. Both had to cut back on their music considerably since starting medical school. “When we discussed the possibility of starting an orchestra, we realized how much we missed playing and [in his case], conducting,” she said. And they clearly weren’t alone. From across the Perelman School and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, more than 40 Penn doctors, nurses, and grad students answered their call to participate, squeezing out time from their overloaded schedules for something they loved … and missed.

“It allows me to pull out of the sometimes psychologically and physically draining day-to-day caring and witnessing of injured patients, particularly those suffering tragic events such as death by gun violence,” said Jose Pascual, MD, PhD, a surgeon in the Trauma Center at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Plus, it provides “the opportunity to produce beautiful art with my [14-year-old] son, Mateo,” who also plays in the orchestra. His son agreed: “It helps bring us closer.”

Playing an instrument may also be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy. “It engages every major part of the central nervous system,” said John Dani, PhD, chair of Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine. For example, playing the violin—which, like many instruments, requires the right hand to do something different than the left—uses the peripheral nervous system, which controls finger movement, as well as gross and fine motor skills. The brain’s executive function—which plans and makes decisions—comes into play as a musician plays one part but keeps focus on what’s coming next. Couple that with the total sensory input—visual, auditory, and emotional all at the same time—and it becomes a total “workout” for the brain. “Recent studies suggest that music may be a uniquely good form of exercising your brain,” he said. “Fun can also be good for you.”

“We were amazed by and grateful for the musicians’ enthusiasm, engagement, and dedication,” Chang said. No matter where their lives and medical careers take them, she said, “the orchestra is proof that music can and should remain a part of us.”

This story was originally published on the Penn Medicine News Blog.

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