As people become increasingly reliant on all sorts of prescription medications for everything from managing their pain and fighting off illness to simply falling asleep, it raises concerns that we’re leaning too heavily on these meds to solve our problems – problems that some people feel can be helped by music instead.
Sure, we all know that throwing our favourite album on can help lift our spirits in hard times, or that the right playlist can help put us in the zone for study, but in combination with a bit of modern technology, its potential could extend far beyond that.
Serving as the head of product development at Nokia until 2013, Marko Ahtisaari is no stranger to working on innovative tech-based solutions and, as Wired reports, his latest venture is based around the demonstrable effects that music can have on the brain, and how those might be harnessed to help us live better lives.
Leaving Nokia to join the MIT Media Lab, it was there that he met biologist Ketki Karanam, who was studying the effects that music can have on the brain. With a background in music himself, Ahtisaari was intrigued at the growing evidence that Karanam presented him about just what music can do to the brain.
“It fires very broadly,” he tells Wired. “It’s not just the auditory cortex. What happens is essentially similar to when we take psycho-stimulants. In other words, when we take drugs.”
In one 2005 study, Ahtisaari cites, patients were able to self-administer morphine to ease their pain post-surgery, but some were listening to music before it came time for their dosage. “The music group used one-third of the amount of morphine in comparison to a control group who didn’t listen to music,” he says. “Given the opioid epidemic that we have, and particularly how some of it starts after surgery, it seems to me that everyone should be listening to music after an operation.”
Marconi Union’s 2011 release ‘Weightless’ can reduce anxiety by 65%
It was results like these that have convinced them to direct their efforts towards tech-based ideas for music treatment, such as The Sync Project, which analyses millions of Spotify playlists that are labelled with health-related terms and delivers customised playlists to participants around the world. Then, through a combination of user feedback and even biometric data, the project can determine on a broad scale the effectiveness of various songs and sounds.
More interestingly, The Sync Project has also partnered up with British ambient band Marconi Union, whose 2011 composition ‘Weightless’ is commonly regarded as the most relaxing ever. Recent studies on that song have concluded that it has significant effects on everything from resting heart rate to anxiety levels, reducing the latter by 65%.
But, rather than just relying on their pre-made tracks, the partnership is working with a very high-tech method of songwriting that brings artificial intelligence into the equation to perfectly tailor tracks to the individual – potentially amplifying the music’s effects.
“This new experience with Marconi Union is a new kind of music,” Ahtisaari says. “Basically, it’s an AI-generated music that’s tuned to your heart rate. With that data as input, Unwind will then generate a personalised soundtrack to help you relax before sleep.”
“In twenty years time, we will consider it absurd and primitive that we did not use music and sound as an essential part of our health regime, both for everyday wellness but also to complement pharmaceutical treatment.”
It’s still early days for music-as-medicine, but it’s these steps that will hopefully continue to give music a renewed relevance in the future as a pathway to health.