A baby falling back to sleep at 2 am to a gentle lullaby may convince its parents that music can induce sleep, but new compositions designed to help listeners relax sound rather different to Rock-a-bye Baby.
Boston-based start-up Sync Project uses biometrics to tailor music to your mood. Its Unwind app measures your heart beat via your smartphone’s accelerometer and uses these readings to tweak a relaxing ambient track by UK band Marconi Union. After listening, you take a brief survey. How relaxed do you feel?
“Music can be used for everyday wellness as well as for clinical applications,” says Sync Project co-founder Ketki Karanam. Relaxation and sleep was an obvious place to start. “We decided to start by focusing on relaxation as we felt that was one area where people were using music to calm themselves down or relax,” she says. And people with sleep conditions are often looking for drug-free ways to sleep better.
As well as the Unwind app, the company plans to collect biometric data from attendees at an overnight performance of neoclassical composer Max Richter’s eight-hour album Sleep – designed to help people nod off – at the Barbican in London next month.
Concertgoers will be invited to wear activity-tracking ŌURA rings, which also monitor heart rate and body temperature. In addition, the volunteers will wear the rings while going to sleep at home, with and without the aid of Richter’s composition.
AI music treatment
The Sync Project team will then analyse the readings for insights into how the music might affect sleep and relaxation. Participants will also report back on their stress and relaxation levels before and after listening to the music.
Ultimately, Sync Project aims to develop its own AI-based music treatment tools for different situations, from everyday wellness to clinical applications. Karanam even points to studies examining music’s impact on people affected by conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and strokes.
But neuroscientist David Eagleman at Stanford University in California, who was an adviser to Richter on the Sleep album, is sceptical. Repetitive, unsurprising music helps the brain go into a relaxed state – but does little more, he says.
“Music has certain obvious ways it can excite or relax us, but there are limits and it certainly can’t replace real treatments,” he says. In the Parkinson’s research, music could help people keep their muscles moving better and stop them “freezing” while walking, he says – but clapping works just as well.
Music can be a useful distraction, which can help with insomnia or pain relief, says, director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University, UK. “That said, if the presenting insomnia is so ‘mild’ it can be effectively managed with Spotify, it’s unlikely to have been a major clinical issue in the first place,” he says.
Controlled, academic tests of Sync Project’s tools remain necessary, as people who opt in to use them are already likely to be music fans, Morgan says. “Keep in mind that those who like listening to music as a lifestyle choice do so because it delivers emotional/psychological benefits,” he says. “That it also delivers these benefits to the same people when they’re sick would be unsurprising.”
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