Music as Precision Medicine


What do Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer Peter Gabriel, Grammy-Award-winning alternative artist Annie Clark (St. Vincent), critically acclaimed electronic musician Jon Hopkins and distinguished composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen all have in common?

Aside from the extraordinary range of musical talent they represent, all four have just announced they are joining The Sync Project, a Boston-based “global collaboration” asking some fascinating questions about how medicine might be different if we could more precisely harness the power of music to heal our bodies and our minds.

We all know, intuitively, that music can change the way we feel. As Peter Gabriel said when announcing his Sync Project collaboration, “A good collection of music has always been used as a box of mood pills.”

But what if music can actually change the way we heal? Plenty of current research suggests that it can, and that it does so in some of the same ways that medicines do – by modulating neurochemical pathways involved in reward, motivation and pleasure; stress and arousal; immunity; and social affiliation.

For example, a study of 7,000 surgical patients found that people who were allowed to relax to their favorite music had their pain levels drop by two points on a scale of one to 10, and needed less pain medication to feel comfortable. That’s a fairly impressive effect for a non-pharmacological intervention, not to mention one that is simple, inexpensive and free of side effects.

Music also has been found to aid in recovery after stroke, helping to improve verbal memory and focused attention, depression and confusion. Music appears to stimulate neural networks that bypass the area of the brain damaged by stroke, allowing recovery to take place.

The scientific literature is full of other examples but researchers themselves are the first to admit that study of the neurochemical effects of music is still in its infancy.

That’s where The Sync Project comes in.

They’ve built a platform to facilitate the first-ever large-scale studies to scientifically measure how the structural properties of music – beat, key and timbre – impact biometrics such as heart rate, brain activity and sleep patterns. The platform is leveraging converging technologies, including services like Pandora and Spotify that give anyone with a smart phone access to a nearly infinite variety of music, and the smartphones themselves, which can collect biometric data when synced with wearable trackers. This information will be used to generate large real-time data sets that can be shared with scientists and clinicians to help them perform rigorous studies with broad “real-world” applicability.

The Sync Project’s ultimate vision? To one day be able to deliver to a person’s phone a personalized soundtrack or “musical cocktail” for conditions like sleep disorders, pain, Parkinson’s disease, fatigue, stroke recovery, anxiety and athletic performance.

Music as precision medicine.

In a recent talk Sync Project co-founder and CEO Marko Ahtisaari asked, “If you knew that walking for five minutes to music could help someone with Parkinson’s disease, would you do it?” He said that later this year the company will be launching an open application enabling anyone to join and contribute data, with the goal of creating a large enough data set to better understand the musical characteristics that affect gait, a frequent impairment in patients with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.

It will be fascinating to watch – and maybe even participate! – as this project progresses and provides yet another perspective on ways medicine can evolve to incorporate safer and more accessible, less invasive and less costly methods for monitoring, diagnosing and treating a wide range of conditions.