My father wasn’t a musician, but he did love singing. When he was just 65 years old, he was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment. It started with forgetting or mixing up words and progressed rapidly over the next five years until he could no longer speak.

As was our tradition, we went to Christmas Eve services together one year in the middle of his disease progression and he wasn’t talking very much. That night, however, as the organ began playing “Silent Night,” my father, who had not spoken without difficulty in some years, sang every word of every verse to the hymn. It remains to this day the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.

How is it that someone in the middle of Early-onset Alzheimer’s was able to sing a favorite hymn, but not remember my childhood nickname? That’s what researchers at the National Institute of Health (NIH), among other organizations, are trying to figure out. Increasing numbers of studies and research are proving music and art therapies to be instrumental tools in addressing multiple mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as well as complex neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

One of the leading advocates for this research is world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming, a five-time Grammy® Award-winning singer who takes the stage in Symphony Hall on April 11 and 13 with Music Director Nathalie Stutzmann and the ASO. In addition to two performances of Richard Strauss songs, Fleming will host a “Music and Mind” event at the Woodruff Arts Center on Friday, April 12, at 6:30 p.m. The panel discussion, moderated by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, will explore how music can be used to understand and treat complex brain disorders and mental health issues, like Alzheimer’s and PTSD.

In 2016, Fleming became an essential part of the Sound Health Initiative, a partnership with NIH and the Kennedy Center to study how listening, performing or creating music works in the brain, which in turn could lead to more therapy and treatment for patients with neurological disorders. Through the Sound Health Initiative, the NIH has awarded $20 million in funding for music and neuroscience research over the next five years.

Her work with Sound Health led Fleming to create her “Music and Mind” presentation, which further explores the impact of music on the brain in areas like child development, depression, loneliness, and social issues. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the live “Music and Mind” events were shuttered, she turned the presentations into a live-streamed series on YouTube, reaching more than 665,00 viewers in 70 countries. According to Fleming, her reasons for supporting the research into music and mental health are personal. She told the Washington Post in an interview last year that she has, for years, suffered from somatic pain before performances. “It’s pain that your brain and body are making up so that you can be distracted from what’s distressing you, which in my case was performance pressure.”

Brain pathways, like our muscles, are strengthened when exercised or used. When they aren’t used, the brain shuts them down or finds another use for those pathways. Music, however, uses so many of those pathways, that it keeps them all strong and in use which can keep things like cognitive function from declining. Musicians, in particular, use more of their brain pathways than non-musicians, and are more likely to use both halves of the brain when playing music or performing exercises like detecting pitch.

But it’s not just physical health that is impacted by music—mental health is also improved and strengthened with music therapy. Listening to music activates and synchronizes the emotional regions in the brain, releases dopamine, and lowers stress. This is why we often get emotional listening to music associated with a strong memory, and why music therapy is becoming more popular in treating issues like PTSD.

Music can also help with pain management. Music-based therapies have been shown to improve chronic pain, which as many of 55 percent of the population worldwide reports experiencing. Because music therapy is non-pharmaceutical pain management, it’s less expensive than some forms of treatment and has no risk of addiction or other major side effects.

Music relaxes us, inspires us, and heals us on many levels. Most music lovers know that on an instinctive level, but with new research and studies, there’s scientific data to back it up.

“I believe the arts should be embedded in health care, across the board,” Fleming told the Washington Post. “Doctors need it, healthcare providers need it. When you bring in people who are doing this work, everybody gets lifted.”