Medical music is striking a chord

Tristra Newyear Yeager
July 10, 2023
It is now possible for music to have medicinal outcomes, writes Tristra Yeager.

Tristra Newyear Yeager explores how putting artificial intelligence in healthcare can create a new kind of music technology that delivers medicine directly through our earbuds.

Music can loosen long-held tears. It can flood you with love. All art can do this, yet music, by its very properties, takes things one step further: It can predictably change your heart rate and breathing, dance on the skin and through the neurons. It can disrupt nightmares. It can form a curious bridge between damaged memories and the present moment, between the brain and limbs after traumatic injury. 

For the last century or so, these powers have been explored in academic journals and clinical settings, or New Age circles that bled into pseudoscience. Now a convergence of technologies – from the familiar to the bleeding edge – is bringing musical healing directly to our ears. 

Alongside tech, several other factors are helping to bring years of scientific research and therapeutic practice into everyday experience. Audio tools, data, and wearables mean it is now possible for music products to have medicinal outcomes. Audio treatments are heading to new, precise places that promise to address conditions, especially neurological and psychological ones, with a power akin to drugs. 

Body rock

“Musical information is physical,” as music therapist Hope Young puts it. Sound impacts us physically and in fairly predictable ways. Her insight is that this has medical applications. Yet until the era of digital audio, implementing these insights proved tricky. But technology has made this possible. For example, the ability to shift a recorded track’s tempo is a game changer that helped her build SoundSteps, a precision audio product used in 250 clinics and hospitals worldwide. You can adjust carefully crafted sounds to a new tempo to match a Parkinson’s patient’s strides, encouraging the patient to walk with a steady rhythm.

It is now possible for music to have medicinal outcomes.

AI has supercharged the possibilities of digital audio for therapeutic purposes in other ways. For example, Music Health’s Vera app uses AI recommendation to surface songs meaningful to patients with dementia, guiding caregivers through a simple process to find the right tunes. Listening to their favourite songs can help patients experience less agitation and better interaction with those around them. Other researchers are examining how music streaming platforms can be used in more targeted ways to relieve depression and anxiety as an adjunct to traditional treatments.

AI can customise the sound of treatments beyond recommendations, however. It can generate audio that adapts to a person’s movements, heart rate variability, or other inputs like EEGs of brain activity, using existing commercial recordings or purpose-made stems (the individual instrument and vocal tracks which make up a recording).

One early example of adaptive music for fitness, Weav Run, matches songs to a runner’s pace. Using a smartwatch or ring, apps can now help someone manage their stress through music via biofeedback like heart rate variability. And new possibilities are just emerging: more portable brain activity devices, baked into headbands or earbuds, allow brain-based biofeedback that could form the basis for future adaptive music.

Audio tools, data, and wearables give music the ability to impact our bodies, unlocking the door to a host of new wellness applications.

Scientists have copious proof of music’s multifaceted role in boosting brain changes. Music may be capable of supporting the connections between neurons to treat mental illness or improve our physical capabilities.

The pandemic showed the viability and the value of taking treatment out of offices and into people’s homes. Music-based treatment apps are part of this bigger wave of digital therapeutics that expand diagnosis, care access, and treatment options. 

Thanks to this, music is jumping through the hurdles of scientific trials and regulatory scrutiny, as are other digital treatments. In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees medical treatment regulation, approved the first prescription game for ADHD. That same year, it issued a Breakthrough Device Designation for a music-driven digital therapeutic by MedRhythms targeting stroke rehabilitation.

Wellness creep

How big is the potential impact of therapeutic music apps?

The world of functional music is one we already know. Embracing everything from the sound of air conditioners to “lifestyle”-enhancing playlists or livestreams, “functional music” racks up an estimated 15 billion streams a month across all platforms worldwide. It’s often the go-to audio experience for sleep and studying, though hit the right search terms and you’re promised everything from transcendent sex to lucid dreams.

This music is nothing new: LPs for sleep or reading, cassettes of binaural beats, and mp3s promising the same highs as THC have been on the market for decades. It’s just that now, there’s so much of it and it lives side by side on streaming services with other commercially released music, much to music companies’ chagrin.

From this varied mess, a tamer, more unified sound is coalescing, the soundtrack of self-care in meditation apps, psychedelic sessions, and whole pre-packaged wellness products like Live Nation’s meditation app or Deezer’s Zen subscription service.

This is an exciting potential market for music companies, who are looking for growth beyond streaming. Yet with growth comes peril: with gift shop vibes and lo-fi designed for inoffensive blandness, overly commercialised music trivialises its true power, which is found in customisation and specificity.

Music may be capable of supporting the connections between neurons to treat mental illness or improve our physical capabilities.

If we embrace the emerging precision of music for health, we need to separate musical market segments into medical-grade and lifestyle music. Mass-market wellness products often formulate feelings and health concepts at a general level, failing not only to embrace music’s full potential, but to understand exactly how music can help those who listen to it.

Instead, responsive audio apps should lead us to question how emotion and healing really work. Mental health, perceived emotional states, and music are all highly personal, as well as culturally specific. Our culture: our native language, what we’ve heard, how those around us perceive music, all shape our brains.

“Cultural practice changes the brain.”

Tamara Turner, King's College London

Our mechanistic view of the brain and neurochemistry misses this key point, leaving us with overly simplistic ideas of what health is and what quality therapy could or should sound like. “We know that cultural practice changes the brain and nervous system connections,” notes Dr. Tamara Turner, a music anthropologist and researcher at King's College London, UK, whose work explores experiences of health, emotions, and music across cultures.

These potential perils are not inevitabilities. They are possibilities and prompts. We can embrace music’s truly therapeutic, mind-changing qualities. We can build things to channel them. We can tear down assumptions about wellness, health, and mental pathology, and refashion our sense and concept of self, body, and mind. But we can only do this if we act deliberately, informed by both art and science, using tech as our tool, not our crutch or fetish. And music will play a key role along the way.

Overly commercialised music trivialises its true power, which is found in customisation and specificity.
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Tristra Newyear Yeager is a writer and strategist who has worked for two decades in media and public relations, primarily in the music industry. She also holds a PhD in Siberian history.