Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart was a featured guest on PBS NewsHour over the weekend. Rather than promoting his own tour with Dead & Company, however, the Rhythm Devil appeared to discuss his drone trio and how they are working to heal people with music.

Back in May, Hart and Indian classical virtuoso Zakir Hussain teamed up to create Sound Consciousness: Drones for Sonic Bathing, a new drone music project. The two longtime collaborators also teamed up with opera star Renee Flemming to expand the ensemble to proliferate cognitive musical therapy.

“Music and medicine goes back as far as history goes back, you know, shamanism, people lived by that,” Hart told PBS correspondent Mike Cerre.

The trio is just a part of the ever-expanding study of music’s healing powers. Though the link between music and health has been explored for centuries, the past two decades have seen medical professionals finally taking a serious look at the connection with clinical studies seeking to quantify the data.

One such institution is the Sound Health Network at the University of California San Francisco. The Network is a collaboration with scientists from the National Institutes of Health, and artists from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“So one thing I’ve noticed in all of the musical experiments I’ve done is that when you listen to a musical stimulus and you look at the brain while that’s being listened to, the entire brain is really engaged. The music is a robust stimulus for the brain,” Dr. Charles Limb, co-director of the Sound Health Network, said.

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Daniel Levitin, the McGill & Stanford Universities neuroscientist, music composer, and bestselling author of This Is Your Brain On Music, is studying music therapy’s effects on cognitive brain function, with a focus on its benefits for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases.

“In Parkinson’s disease, music is helpful because it sets a pace or a tempo and often Parkinson’s patients can’t walk because they’re frozen,” Levitin said. “And the music gives them a pulse that causes neurons in their brain in the basal ganglia, the cerebellum, the motor action centers, to synchronize with the tempo. And that helps them to start walking and to keep walking. You can’t repair broken neural connections, but you can make new ones. Any time you learn something new, those are new neural pathways. Practicing an instrument, learning an instrument, develops these pathways.”

Hart has seen music’s healing effects on Alzheimer’s patients first-hand.

“My grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, and she was fading and she hadn’t spoken about three or four years, and I started playing the drum and she was smiling, you know, as best she could. And then she said my name,” Hart said. “It was a startling discovery and it kind of lit my light.”

Hart’s work with the medical nature of music stretches back long before Sound Consciousness. The drummer has been working with UCSF neurologist Dr. Adam Gazzaley using digital mapping techniques to determine what kind of music is best to treat damaged parts of the brain, often using himself as a test subject.

“My brain, you know, rhythm central,” Hart said. “So seeing how it reacted to certain beats, loud, soft, fast or slow was a revelation.”

Even with all of his medical research, Hart is still going to go ahead and keep his day job.

“So, ‘Dr. Hart,’ do you take Medicare payments at your performances for all of us,” Cerre asked jokingly.

“Oh, yeah. Well, you know, hey, in many states, doctors can write a script for music therapy, so it’s not far off with music that can be prescribed,” Hart observed.

Watch the full PBS NewsHour segment featuring Mickey Hart on the healing nature of music via the player below.

PBS NewsHour — Inside the effort to make music that heals

[Video: PBS NewsHour]