In September 2013, Marko Ahtisaari resigned from his position as the head of product design at Nokia. The Finnish company had just been acquired by Microsoft and Ahtisaari, the son of a former president of Finland, decided it was time to look for his next startup. He joined the MIT Media Lab shortly after, where he was introduced by Joi Ito, the Lab’s director, to Ketki Karanam, a biologist who was studying how music affects the brain. Ahtisaari was naturally interested: he grew up playing the violin and later studied music composition at Columbia University. “I used to be part of the New York scene,” Ahtisaari says. “I left to do product design and to be an entrepreneur. For 15 years I didn’t play much. I have friends who are now playing with Tom Yorke and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
Karanam showed Ahtisaari that there was an increasing body of evidence based on imaging studies that showed what happens to the brain when exposed to music. “It fires very broadly,” Ahtisaari. “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.”
To Ahtisaari, this indicated that music could, at least in principle, complement or even replace the effects that pharmaceuticals had on our neurology. For instance, there were studies that showed that patients with Parkinson’s disease improved their gait when listening to a song with the right beat pattern.
Another clinical study suggested music could be used for pain
management for hernia patients after surgery (Nilsson, U., Unosson, M., & Rawal, N. 2005). A group of patients was
exposed to one hour of music in addition to the standard post-surgery
care, and allowed to self-administer morphine.
“The music group used one-third of the amount of morphine in comparison to a control group who didn’t listen to music,” Ahtissari 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.”
To Ahtisaari, the idea that music could be used as medicine seemed like one to take seriously, and, in the summer of 2015, along with Karanam with Yadid Ayzenberg, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, he started the Sync Project to do just that.
“One of the first things we did was to meet top scientists and musicians and ask them how we could take this idea forward,” Athisaari remembers. They partnered with a diverse group that today forms their advisory board, from neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley to musicians Peter Gabriel and St. Vincent. “The response was that we needed to study people when they are really listening to music, during their day-to-day, not in the lab.”
The Sync Project is currently analysing more than 10 million playlists on Spotify tagged to a particular health-related word, like “relaxation”, to map the characteristics of the music — tempo, beat salience, timbre — that people are playing. They have also developed a Slack bot that every morning delivers a personalised playlist to more than 400 teams around the world. “It’s personalised to get you in the zone,” Ahtisaari says. “We get ratings and reactions from the users and that classification goes into the feedback loop.” In some cases, Sync is also collecting biometric sensor data, like heart rate, from its users to understand how their physiology correlates to the music. “Ultimately, we will be applying machine learning to curate personalised music therapeutic interventions for a particular health outcome,” Ahtisaari says.
“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 compliment pharmaceutical treatment.”
The other type of music therapeutic that Ahtisaari envisions revolves around generative music. Today, March 1, the Sync Project is launching a collaboration with British electronic ambient music band Marconi Union, who in 2011 released the single “Weightless”, a viral success that became widely known as the most relaxing tune ever.
“This new experience with Marconi Union is a new kind of music,” Athisaari says. “Basically, it’s an AI-generated music that’s tuned to your heart rate. With that data as input, the music will then generate a song to help you relax before sleep.”
In the meantime, Marko Ahtisaari has returned to one of his favourite pastimes. “I read so much of the evidence of the neurological effects of playing music that I said to myself: ‘Man, I can’t in good faith do this company unless I start playing again.” His new band, formed in 2015, is called Construction. Their first album is out this summer.
Want to know more? In anticipation of this year’s WIRED Health conference in London, the Sync Project is announcing an AI music experiment to improve sleep. Anyone interested in relaxation and better sleep with the help of music can participate for free using their smartphone at unwind.syncproject.co. Join hundreds of healthcare, pharmaceutical and technology influencers and leaders at the fourth annual event on March 9 at 30 Euston Square. Buy tickets and learn more here.