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Professors and Musicians Discuss the Intersections of Music and Happiness in HBS Webinar

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Musicians and academics discussed the role of music in fostering interpersonal connections, growth, and healing at a webinar hosted by the Harvard Business School Monday afternoon.

Following a recorded music performance, conductor and Business School case researcher John J. Masko, musician and Medical School professor Lisa M. Wong ’79, and Kennedy School professor Arthur C. Brooks reflected on the benefits of music in a discussion moderated by Business School Campus Activation Program Director Madeline Meehan.

Masko, who founded the National Virtual Medical Orchestra this year, opened the event with a recording of a remote performance by the orchestra. He said that he founded the group — which is composed of 75 medical professionals representing more than 20 states – to help individuals decompress and connect during the pandemic.

“I started hearing almost immediately from musicians in our orchestra who felt that they needed to get back to playing at what was for many of them the most stressful point in their professional lives,” Masko said.

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Wong, who is a pediatrician, said studies have demonstrated the importance of music in promoting empathy and human connection.

“We know from the neuroscientists that there is not a single center of music in your brain,” Wong said. “Rather, music just infuses the entire brain.”

She added that music engages deeper parts of the brain responsible for “feeling in community with the people we’re playing with.”

Wong, who has been a member of the Boston area Longwood Symphony Orchestra for the past 35 years, highlighted music’s applications to public service. She said a concert in 1991 compelled the orchestra — which is composed of medical professionals — to turn to service because the vulnerable populations they had designed the performance for, including homeless individuals and victims of domestic violence, were unable to attend due to curfews and other restrictions.

“It was those empty seats that transformed the orchestra and taught us that we really need to be using every concert to serve, and that’s what we have done ever since,” she said.

Brooks said in an interview preceding the event that music can help individuals achieve a deeper understanding of happiness and growth.

“Happiness and unhappiness, purpose, meaning, suffering, and weakness — these are all universal experiences that people have,” he said. “When you find new ways of talking about them beyond the conventional ways — studies and data — you can reach people.”

During the webinar, Brooks described that dealing with adversity promotes personal growth. He drew an example from the life of Beethoven, whose deafness initially posed a threat to his musical career, but eventually gave rise to his unique composition style.

“He could no longer hear performances of Mozart — he just wrote what was in his imagination,” Brooks said. “And that transformed Beethoven’s work.”

Brooks said that, similarly, the current difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may give rise to developments that will strengthen humanity in the future.

“Many of the innovations that are going to save lives, many of the innovations that are going to make your life easier, they’re going to draw you together more in loving relationships with other people,” Brooks said. “They will come about because of the pain and loss that we’re suffering right now.”

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