Music as medicine

Research shows that music affects the same neural pathways as psycho-stimulants and drugs. So could playlists replace painkillers? The team at the Sync Project thinks they might


Illustration by Emily Forgot

Belief in the power of music to soothe and heal dates back as far as classical times. Plato considered music to be the “medicine of the soul” and other ancient Greek philosophers believed that it could calm mania, lift depression and even cure hangovers.

Thanks to 21st century neuro-imaging techniques, we know that music activates the areas of the brain that control emotion, pleasure, motivation and stress levels. There’s a growing body of research, too, that suggests that it can help with a wide range of medical conditions. Recent studies have shown that listening to music with a particular rhythm and beat can improve the gait of Parkinson’s disease patients with impaired mobility. Another study showed that it can help relieve postoperative pain: hernia patients who listened to an hour of music and self-administered morphine used a third less of the drug than a control group who didn’t listen to music.

The body’s mysterious response to music, and its medical potential is the focus of the Sync Project, a bio-tech company set up by the former head of product design at Nokia, Marko Ahtisaari. The Sync Project is working with scientists and musicians on the first ever large-scale studies to measure how the structural properties of music, like rhythm and tempo, impact biometrics such as heart rate, brain activity and sleep patterns.

“Wearable tech allows us to gather massive quantities of data about our bodies, and services like Spotify allow us to predict personal music preferences,” explains Ahtisaari. “What if we could layer these two data sets to see how our bodies are reacting to our playlists moment by moment?”

The company has built a mobile app and platform to collect data across a range of conditions. The platform integrates with streaming music services (such as Spotify) and biometric sensors (like Apple Watch), and then applies machine learning to the dataset.

The Sync Project is currently analysing 10m Spotify playlists, mapping the characteristics – tempo, beat, timbre – of each individual track. An app then sends a personalised playlist to 400 teams across the globe. The users feedback their reactions and ratings – some also send biometric information. Ahtisaari’s team then applies machine learning models to see how the users’ physiological reactions correlate to the music they’ve been listening to.

According to Ahtisaari, the most promising areas for personalised music therapeutics are Parkinson’s disease and pain relief. “Music affects our gait: its symmetry and stride length,” he explains. “If we can have a large enough data set of people walking to music we can gain a better understanding of the musical characteristics that affect gait. Then coupling that large data set with a smaller study, particularly with Parkinson’s patients, we can potentially create a cocktail of music that would help a Parkinson’s patient maintain mobility.”

With opioid abuse having reached epidemic proportions in the US, finding alternative methods of pain management has become a high priority for US healthcare professionals. Neuro-imaging shows that the brain responds to music in a very similiar way to psychostimulants; using it therapeutically is a logical next step, Ahtisaari believes. Commenting in a recent interview with Wired magazine he said: “In 20 years’ time, we’ll consider it absurd and primitive that we didn’t use music as an essential part of our health regime, both for everyday wellness but also to complement pharmaceutical treatment.”

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