Music: It’s Just What the Doctor Ordered

Why do people listen to music? There are different answers to the question, but they all boil down to one idea – it makes them feel better. Listening to music changes our brains, and it’s been used for years by music therapists to help with symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, autism, Alzheimer’s, and chronic pain. Music has even been used by therapists to help manage the pain of childbirth. Studies have shown that music impacts shopping habits, can help babies learn language, enhances athletic performance, and improves mood. And it has a strong connection to movement that has the potential to help children with motor delays. One study found that, even among people who were still while listening to music, the parts of the brain associated with movement were activated.

A recent article from Outdoor Online spotlights the Sync Project, a collaborative effort between some of the world’s top scientists and musicians, and what they’re trying to do is a little bit different from traditional music therapy. Their team includes Grammy award-winning artists, scientists from Spotify and MIT Media Lab, and neuroscientists.

According to Daphne Zohar, CEO of PureTech Health and member of the Sync team, “Music can modulate neural systems like the dopamine response, autonomic nervous system, and others that are related to stress, movement, learning, and memory. But we want to take this into the realm of clinical science.”

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The people at Sync want to take music therapy to the next level and develop music that can serve as, in their words, “precision medicine.” They’re not just rehashing the same old research that shows that music increases dopamine levels. (It does.) They’re analyzing the impact that certain rhythms, tempos, keys, and instruments have on the human brain. As if that doesn’t sound complicated enough, that the impact of music differs from person to person. Your brain responds to music differently depending on what kind of music you grew up with and what you listen to now.

One of the “problems” that Sync is tackling is that the when you’re trying to treat people with music, you can’t use a blanket prescription. One patient with anxiety may respond best to jazz while another may get better results from listening to Justin Bieber. Their goal is to design a system that can monitor your heart rate, brain activity, and sleep patterns when you listen to certain types of music and give you a personalized prescription for what ails you. By using biometric feedback from Fitbits and other heartrate monitoring devices, they’re able to observe the effects of music on people’s emotional states during everyday listening situations instead of in a lab.

There’s potential that music could help combat the opioid epidemic by offering patients with chronic pain an alternative or a supplement to prescription drugs. It’s possible that music could become the first-line treatment for milder cases of anxiety and depression, eliminating the need for antidepressants and their side effects for some patients. Sync is even looking at how music could help people work more productively by increasing their ability to concentrate.

You can contribute to the project by using their smartphone app. It offers playlist to help you get ready for bed or help you relax at any time. As they’re able to collect more biofeedback data, they hope to expand the functionality of the app and the clinical applications of their work. You can also check out the Sync Music Bot, an app that will send you personalized Spotify playlists to help you work or relax. The Sync project is in its infancy, but early results are already being used to change people’s everyday lives. For now, you can do your own experiments with music at home by reaching for your iPod or smartphone next time you want to feel better. Pick a favorite song and see what happens!