Music as Medicine

I’ll be home for Christmas

Henry has Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home, and is mostly unresponsive and depressed, but watch what happens when he’s introduced to music. The part of the brain that recognizes music is usually one of the last parts affected by Alzheimer’s disease; but not only does the music awaken that part; it improves Henry’s communication and memory too. He remembers the words AND the artist.

Having seen this reaction before, I became interested in the healing powers of music and met Sean Maher, an award-winning musician and music therapist at Intelligent Sleep who uses vibration, sound and binaural beats to help people entrain their brains to reduce stress, focus, or improve creativity. I also discovered Lisa’s article below and got permission to repost it.

Music as Medicine

Bad to the Bone

Click on image to hear George Thorogood’s classic, “Bad to the Bone” on YouTube.

by Lisa Suennen

It happens every time. I hear “Bad to the Bone” on the radio and suddenly all is right with the world. I love music and I have learned that if I choose the correct genre and tempo  I can improve a depressed state or calm a hyper one. I have song lists on my iPod called Cranky and Stressed, F the World, and Happiness, all designed around my various moods. Music can have a profound affect on my state of mind. I think this is true for most people, actually.

The therapeutic value of music has long been known to the medical world. Famed neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks used music to engage his patients (this was dramatized in the movie The Music Never Stops, where a brain-damaged patient is able to recall memories otherwise lost when he hears the favorite music of his youth). And I saw an article this week, courtesy of my BFF, which stated this:

Doctor playing the violin“One hundred years ago, Pennsylvanian surgeon Evan Kane penned a brief letter to JAMA in which he declared himself a rigorous proponent of the ‘benefic [sic] effects of the phonograph within the operating room.’ To Kane, it was an optimal means of ‘calming and distracting the patient from the horror of their situation.’ Of course this was before effective anesthesia so anything would have helped.”

The article goes on to say that the connection between music and healing has been known, or at least reported, since 4000 B.C., and that a specific reference to music therapy was documented as far back as 1789. It also goes on to say that that surgeons have music playing in the operating theater about 70% of the time, improving task focus, lowering muscle fatigue and reducing stress. My favorite part of the article is where it suggests surgeons choose appropriate songs for their operating soundtrack, such as Stayin’ Alive and Unbreak My Heart while avoiding “Another One Bites the Dust” and “House of Pain.” Words to live by.


Click image to watch their music video.

The mp3 file, iPod and its mobile phone successors have made music accessible, personalizable and portable in a way it has never previously been. And as these technologies have become low cost, ubiquitous and customizable, the digital health movement has figured out a path for companies to turn music into medicine.

Two companies I have seen in the recent year are built solely around this premise and I thought it would be fun to highlight them here, at a time when music is all around us in the form of Christmas Carols. I was laying in the dentist’s chair the other day listening to “Winter Wonderland” for the 10,000th time this week and all I could think about was grabbing the instrument out of the dentist’s hand and ending my misery.   But I digress…

Musical Health Tech385b363nologies is a company I met while at Leslie Saxon’s USC Body Computing Conference this year. It was probably the best business competition pitch I had ever seen and believe me, I’ve seen plenty. And why it was good was this: The company demonstrated the profound outcome they can have on patients with real patient videos and they engaged the entire audience of boring VCs and tech people and academics in a group sing-a-long of Blueberry Hill, demonstrating that their product actually makes people feel good. Needless to say they won the business competition, which was focused on the intersection of music and health and, interestingly enough, sponsored by headphones company SkullCandy.

Musical Health Technologies describes itself as “mobile technology, which digitizes the evidence-based music therapy practice of lyric prompting,” by which they mean they use the familiarity of lyrics and the way the brain reacts to music to deliver a therapeutic intervention. They are seeking to make music therapy not just effective (which is already well-known medical fact), but scalable, which it has previously never been.

The company’s first product is called SingFit PRIME, and uses musically generated cognitive and physical stimulation to improve health and quality of life for people with dementia. Music-driven technology and tools are used by professional caregivers to engage patients in more than 60 senior-living communities. According to their website, clients’ professional caregivers report that residents with dementia experience elevated mood, decreased agitation and increased quality of life when they participate in three SingFit PRIME group sessions a week.

But reading about this is boring. You really have to see SingFit in action to be moved  by the power of music and music therapy to engage otherwise less engaged individuals, particularly the way this company has made it work.  My favorite example is this:

I found my thrill...

I found my thrill…

If you had seen the room I was in when I met these guys, which included a few hundred curmudgeonly middle-aged healthcare dorks singing their hearts out in unison to Blueberry Hill, you would understand why I am rooting for this company.

BioBeats is my other recent favorite on the musical healthcare scene. I met them at last year’s Computer Electronics Show when they were powering the music behind a digital health fashion show called Robots on the Runway. Let me tell you, if you haven’t stood next to a neon-lit swimming pool in Vegas with a million other drunk people watching robots move to a funky beat, you haven’t lived. It was like a scene out of the Jetson’s, brought to you by Tanqueray. Way too funny. But the cool part was that the DJ for said event was from BioBeats, which meant that the music was, in effect, biometrically crowdsourced from the heart beats of the audience as sent to the DJ in mixed form courtesy of everyone’s cellphone sensors.

biobeats-galleryBioBeats “uses heart data to create and influence experiential music.” In other words, their app collects your heart’s signals via a phone sensor and turns it into musically-driven but health-relevant information in the form of music. Here is an excerpt from their patent: “BioBeats technology as discussed below help consumers to connect to their hearts by creating applications that turn heartbeats (or other biometrics) into music, as well as creating visualizations of heart health that are easy to understand. Each BioBeats user will get music relevant to their unique heart signature, but also a way to connect with other users’ hearts. Overtime, it is contemplated that BioBeats can make long-term statistical health predictions such as the onset of atherosclerosis, hypertension, or dangerous levels of stress.”

566492880_screen2360x480In English: they collect your heart data, run it through their HeartSong music generation engine, and output at it as a stream of music that helps you perk up or calm down, whether you should be calling 911 instead of Dr. Feelgood. According to a TechCrunch article about BioBeats, the company’s grand plan is “to use entertainment to facilitate the wellness process.” They have consumer focused apps and are working on one for hospitals. In a world of wearables where you can integrate biometric sensors and music generation (hello Apple Watch), this could be just the ticket to keeping the damn thing on your wrist instead of in a drawer.

I know, I can hear you singing it…”what’s the business model? How do they make money?” Well, I am not exactly sure, but I can tell you one thing: consumers will pay for music in a way they won’t pay for healthcare stuff. If BioBeats can actually get you to feel better and maybe even heal better, by driving the soundtrack of your life, they may just be on to something.

On the day I was born
The nurses all gathered ’round
And they gazed in wide wonder
At the joy they had found
The head nurse spoke up
Said “leave this one alone”
She could tell right away
That I was bad to the bone

About the Author

Lisa Suennen is a venture capital investor, healthcare industry consultant, and Managing Partner of Venture Valkyrie Consulting, LLC, a firm that provides advisory services to corporate and independent venture capital funds and to large and small companies around investment and product strategy, innovation spin-outs, market development, partnerships and financing. Project areas of focus are healthcare IT, healthcare services and medical technology, as well as the intersection where these fields meet in digital health.

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