Skip to main content

Symposium explores using music to improve social skills, ease PTSD

Sep. 15, 2016, 10:16 AM

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry kicked off Monday’s Science of Song Symposium. (photo by Joe Howell)
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry kicked off Monday’s Science of Song Symposium. (photo by Joe Howell)

A soldier decided there was only one way to escape the horrific visions of combat that played over and over in his head.

But as he walked through the house on the way to kill himself, he heard his daughter listening to a song he’d written and performed with a professional songwriter during a songwriting retreat. “I can’t do it today,” the soldier thought. “One more day.”

“Now he comes back and volunteers at our retreats,” said Austin-based singer songwriter Darden Smith. “Songs save lives.”

Smith was a headliner Monday with fellow songwriter James House and Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell during the third annual Music, Mind and Society Symposium at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.

This year’s symposium, “The Science of Song,” explored the use of music and singing to help people with developmental disabilities like autism improve their social skills, and others with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recover from the traumatic events they’ve experienced.

“This is the kind of stuff that changes people’s lives,” said Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who opened the half-day symposium.

In addition to Blair and the Vanderbilt Program for Mind, Music and Society, the symposium was sponsored by the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, Department of Otolaryngology, Curb Center for Arts, Enterprise and Public Policy, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Vanderbilt Brain Institute and the American Foundation for Music and Science.

Fifteen Vanderbilt researchers described their studies of music and singing and, in the keynote address, Isabelle Peretz, Ph.D., of the University of Montreal, Canada, discussed the neurological and genetic correlates of musical ability.

Smith said the songwriting program he founded with Mary Judd in 2012, SongwritingWith:Soldiers (, “is really about connecting with them and giving them a way to access the really good parts of their lives.”

“I’ve seen the effect of songwriting,” said Joseph Schlesinger, M.D., assistant professor of Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt and a jazz pianist who spoke at the symposium. But how can it be validated scientifically?

Schlesinger teamed up with psychologist Kevin Reeder, Ph.D., at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, to propose a study using the validated PTSD-Checklist to determine the degree to which the songwriting experience reduces PTSD symptoms. The study will allow researchers to test whether the frequency of “repeated, disturbing and unwanted memories” experienced by the soldiers declines after their songwriting experience.

“I know (songwriting) works,” Schlesinger said. “Now we have a robust scientific quantitative method to show the science behind it.”

Recent Stories from VUMC News and Communications Publications

Vanderbilt Medicine
VUMC Voice