Can Music Be Used as Medicine?

Biometric trackers are helping scientists tap into the body's response to songs and sound.

“Because you listened to Drake, how about Future next?”

Pandora, Spotify, and other music-streaming services try to predict what users might like to listen to, based on their tastes and what’s popular with people near them. People make playlists for certain moods and activities—going to the gym, going to bed. But imagine if those apps could predict exactly which song would be best to help you focus, or to slow your heart rate after a run. (“You seem stressed. How about Sigur Ros?”) And if technology could predict how music affects the body, could it suggest music to treat symptoms of a disease?

That idea is the basis of The Sync Project, a new company based in Boston. Its mission is, as CEO and co-founder Alexis Kopikis puts it, “To figure out if music can truly be used as medicine.” Music’s effect on the mind and body has long been acknowledged anecdotally—who hasn’t tried to use music to influence their mood? Kopikis says it’s only now, though, that the technologies in both the music and health industries are advanced enough to provide the opportunity for this research.

“We have this super interesting moment where, [in] the last 10 years, major companies have put millions of songs in [everyone’s] pockets,” he says. “Then we have a bunch of technology companies trying to develop every possible sensor that you can put on your body to measure physiology. So we thought it was probably the first and most opportune moment to say, ‘Let's take everything we know and understand about music, take everything we're learning and understanding and [that] now can be tracked in real-time in human physiology, and figure out what's going on.’”

The Sync Project currently takes the form of an online and mobile platform that pairs users’ music-streaming services with their wearable body monitors—Fitbits and the like—to track how music might be interacting with their body. The collected data is then shared with scientists who may be able to use it for their own research.

The real-world information coming through the platform is crucial for researchers who want to analyze and understand the effects of music in realistic contexts, says Ketki Karanam, the co-founder and head of science innovation at The Sync Project.

“There's some really good research out there indicating that music has the potential to bring about significant benefits in many health conditions, but not all the studies were well-designed,” she says. “The evaluations of what music does in the body were based on subjective responses and lacked the objective real-time measurements of physiology. That was really the motivation for us to launch The Sync Project and build a platform that would enable all researchers and clinicians to run more studies, better studies, and objectively track what the music was doing under different conditions in different contexts and on biological systems, and hopefully pinpoint the properties of music that were effective for different conditions.”

A screenshot of The Sync Project app
(The Sync Project)

The Sync Project, which was officially launched at the 2015 South by Southwest conference, is still in its infancy. Currently, the platform is only being tested within a small group of scientists and researchers—the company won’t say how many right now—with plans to roll out to larger groups, and eventually the public, later. The idea, though, is that a user’s biometric device, like a FitBit, would track things like steps taken, heart rate, and sleep patterns. Then the user would connect to The Sync Project app on her phone, which would bring in her music via Spotify, iTunes, or another music service. As the user goes about her day, the app would track which songs she listened to, and the biometric data from the device at the time music was being played—was she running to Rihanna? Resting to John Legend? In turn, that data would be used to inform the user—plus scientists and researchers—what music might have helped her fall asleep faster, or focus on a task better. (Of course, this is dependent on what kind of biometric data available wearable devices are able to track. At present, the test users are tracking variables like blood pressure, steps taken, EEG, galvanic skin response, sleep pattern, and concentration—whichever is available on each user’s device.) In the future, The Sync Project imagines it would focus on certain metrics, such as tracking sleep patterns, that could make for large and comprehensive case studies for researchers who are studying related conditions.

“In the last 10 years, there's been enormous advancement in the technologies of analyzing music, for the purpose of making you listen to more music while you're on Spotify or any one of these platforms,” Kopikis explains. “We're taking that depth of knowledge and marrying it with deep analysis of what is going on in your physiology, for the purpose of improving people's lives.”

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Current research into how music affects the body and brain shows that there is at least some degree of influence, physically and psychologically.

For instance, research published in 2005 by Theresa Lesiuk at the University of Windsor, Canada, concluded that music helped to improve the quality and timeliness of office work, as well as overall positive attitudes while people were working on those tasks. A review in 2012 by Costas Karageorghis found there was “evidence to suggest that carefully selected music can promote ergogenic and psychological benefits during high-intensity exercise.” Meanwhile, Stefan Koelsch in Berlin has found “music can evoke activity changes in the core brain regions that underlie emotion,” and physically, “happy” music triggers zygomatic muscle activity—that is, smiling—and “sad” music “leads to the activation of the corrugator muscle”—the frowning muscle in the brow.

However, the long-term effects still need to be parsed more thoroughly, plus it’s still unclear if and how, exactly, music might be used as treatment.

“Just because music—or anything else—acts upon a part of the brain, does not mean that mental health can be influenced,” Robert Zatorre, a neurologist at McGill University and a scientific advisor for The Sync Project, wrote in an email. “We need far more sophisticated understandings of what is going on in a given disease before we can really answer” the question of if music can definitively affect mental or physical health. “That said, there are a few promising avenues that people are trying with particular disorders, and hopefully that work will accelerate in future.”

One such condition is Parkinson’s disease. Jessica Grahn is a neuroscientist at Western University in Ontario who’s been studying the relationship between music and movement, and she points to research that has shown that even when people don’t seem to be physically responding to music—by tapping their foot or dancing—fMRI scans reveal that their brain’s motor systems are responding internally. “When we look at what happens when someone appears to be very passively listening to music, and they're not doing anything to it, we see quite a lot of the brain responding,” she says.

People in these studies, done by Grahn and others, seem to be responding to a song’s rhythm. The rhythm, Grahn says, really drives responses in the brain’s movement areas, and these responses tend to be stronger with music that has a clear beat that people can follow. Now, the next step for researchers is to find out if rhythm can be used to activate motor brain areas in people who have problems there.

Parkinson’s patients, for example, often experience “breaks” or “freezing,” and have trouble initiating movement. “It's not entirely clear why freezing happens,” Grahn says. But “one thing that people have observed is that if you play music that has a steady beat, or sometimes even just a metronome with a steady beat, these patients seem to have improvements in their walking.” Grahn has also observed music seeming effective in elongating and improving the gait of Parkinson's patients, which is often jerky and unsteady.

Still, there are a lot of variables that haven't been studied yet, from figuring out the strength and duration of these apparent effects to whether an individual’s musical abilities have an impact. A major boon, Grahn says, would be obtaining data—much, much more of it, and from patients in real-world situations.

“Patients really vary; some have a very fast progression in the disease, some have a slow progression,” she says. “It's impossible to test enough patients to really capture every kind of patient with every kind of musical ability in the lab.”

She sees The Sync Project (which consulted with her about her research in the past) as an intriguing opportunity. “You can imagine it the same way that your phone knows where you are, they have these accelerometers in it. When you're walking, it jars the phone,” she explains. “A phone can also deliver music. So it'd be very easy to have an app for Parkinson's patients that record their walking and records what music they were listening to at the time, and then sends that data back to a researcher.”

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Kopikis agrees that the lab structure in research can limit what kind of data scientists can gather. “Some of the leading scientists in the field have been working for 30 years with dementia and Alzheimer's patients, whose studies are based on observation,” he says. “In many of these populations, you cannot tell exactly what is going on by just observing. Where scientists get very excited is the ability to combine what they're observing with a whole plethora of biometrics that can lead them to much more accurate understanding of what actually is going on.”

Recently, Zatorre has been gauging interest in the program from research groups around the world, and says he has already found many of them to be enthusiastic.

“I think that it could create a good dialogue between scientists and industry. That could be very valuable for both sides, of course. Furthermore, it could help to jump-start direct applications of our research,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Zatorre does warn that trying to use music as treatment can be risky—especially for a serious condition like Parkinson's.

“It's very complicated to do research with clinical populations because you're dealing with people who have some disorder; you have to be quite careful,” Zatorre says. “You can't tell them all, ‘We're going to try a treatment on you and have you forego the standard treatments that you would know are probably useful.’”

Still, if a patient finds that a certain song can improve her mood and outlook, why not try to reap the benefits and learn more about what’s going on?

“I think there's a lot of hype about what music can do,” Grahn says. “I don't think it's a sort of cure-all or replacement for a lot of things, but I certainly think it has potential. And the great thing about it is there is generally no bad side effects, it gives patients a sense of control over their treatment, and that's really important.”