Ep. 65: Musical Playgrounds – the neuroscience of nature & music combined with PLAY! With Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.

Photo courtesy of PlayCore

October 20, 2020

We are hard-wired to learn through play, and to learn better in nature. Musical playgrounds utilize outdoor musical instruments and the science behind them to combine learning, nature, and play to promote community health and engagement. With no wrong notes, musical training is optional; and the resulting music is always as delightful as the sound of a windchime! 

Bonus: Stay tuned for until the Coda for a powerful dentophobia hack!


Dr. Melissa Hughes

Dr. Melissa Hughes has a PhD in education and has done extensive research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology. She is the author of two best-selling books that I want to buy just based on the titles: Happy Hour with Einstein and Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round. Dr. Hughes is a self-proclaimed neuroscience geek and a popular speaker to corporations, universities, and organizations on topics related to maximizing results by optimizing the brain.


  • Dr. Hughes tells us how she first heard about musical playgrounds, and how she came to be involved in the research behind them.
  • Richard Cooke is a Grammy award-winning musician and a real pioneer (see Freenotes Harmony Park) in designing these outdoor instruments.
  • Dr. Hughes discusses brain-based research that has explored the powerful combination that music and nature has on our physical, mental, and emotional health – individually and collectively as a community.
  • Creating and even just listening to music with others releases neurotransmitters in the brain which generate oxytocin and create a bonding experience, a feeling of belonging. For more on this, listen to Ep. 35 Oxytocin and dopamine in times of social-distancing; and how does music give us the chills? With Dr. Indre Viskontas.
  • These instruments are designed to always sound beautiful; there are no wrong notes. People can express themselves through music whether they have musical training or not.
  • Hughes worked with PlayCore and Richard Cooke (Grammy award-winning musician and outdoor instrument pioneer) on Natural Harmony™: An Instrumental Guide to Blending Music and Community. This book provides valuable tools to help create meaningful outdoor music parks, as well as case studies that share examples of communities that have successfully used musical instruments to unite the community. This free guide is available at https://www.playcore.com/natural-harmony-request and explains the many benefits of outdoor music settings, as well as ways to plan, design, activate, fund, and market these valuable community assets. The book also contains case studies of communities that have successfully put these evidence-based resources into practice. 

Connect/Other Resources

Thanks to Doug Schmitt (Schmitt Music) for telling me about musical playgrounds, and for sending the following information on installations in the Twin Cities area. Check them out and bring the kids in your life!  If you see people playing the instruments as you drive up, stop your car, roll down the windows, and listen to them singing in the distance.

  • Jackson Square Park (across from the Emma B. Howe Northeast YMCA, 2304 Jackson Street NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418): Installed by the Minneapolis City of Lakes Rotary Club in 2010; visited by Doug Schmitt & Mindy:
  • Buffalo Rotary Sturges Park Music Trail – This is a walking path around Lake Buffalo in Buffalo, MN.  It was installed by their Rotary Club.  The instruments are spread out along this trail.  I think they put in 11 instruments!
  • Maple Grove
  • Northfield
  • Plymouth
  • Sauk Center
  • Hastings
  • West St. Paul: Former science teacher, Kathleen Lundgren (wife of former Edina Band Director, Gary Lundgren), had this installed as a science of sound tool.


Dr. Hughes says: My Coda idea is the playlist I used to survive dental hell.  Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the best music for stress management.  One particular song has been scientifically designed with sound engineers and neuroscientists to reduce heart rate and blood pressure as well as physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety.  It’s called Weightless by Marconi Union. That song was the top song on my “chill the brain playlist.”

Weightless, by Marconi Union (Official Video):

Weightless, by Marconi Union (Official 10-hour version)

Closing words

And that is a little taste of the YouTube video of Weightless.

Thanks so much to Dr. Hughes, Richard Cooke, Doug Schmitt of Schmitt Music, and PlayCore, who all had a role in this episode.

I am planning a future episode on the topic of music as a gift – ways to gift music to others, which is the gift that keeps on giving. These can be practical gifts, gifts of musical experiences, physical items or non-tangible items like an original song. If you have any creative ideas to share, I would love to hear them! You can connect with me on social media, email, or my website. 

Thank you so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

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