The Sync Project’s Ambitious Quest To Use Music As Medicine

Can combining music prediction tech and quantified self data help treat conditions like insomnia, depression, and autism?


Most people think of biomedical research as highly controlled, regimented, and painstaking work involving years of lab testing, clinical trials, and data gathering. Daphne Zohar, the CEO of PureTech, acknowledges that developing cures for illness is all of those things, but she also insists that it can be very creative.

Daphne Zohar, CEO of PureTech

Her goal is to approach health from a radically different perspective and launch companies that tackle problems in novel ways. “When we look at a medical problem, we bring leading experts in that area together with people who have never thought about it before,” Zohar tells me. The result is a portfolio of solutions that sound so crazy, they just might work. One company is looking at how video games can be deployed to counter disease; another has developed a pill that expands in your stomach, fooling your body to think it is full; yet another is trying to physically disrupt the skin of the scalp to prompt the regeneration of hair.

Today at South by Southwest, she’s unveiling a new company called The Sync Project that will scientifically measure how music impacts the human body in order to find ways to treat a range of conditions, including depression, fatigue, insomnia, and autism. The project’s logic is simple. Wearable tech allows us to gather massive quantities of data about our bodies, and services like Spotify allow us to predict personal music preferences. What if we could layer these two data sets to see how our bodies are reacting to our playlists moment by moment? The hope is that by better understanding patterns, music can be used to change the way the body deals with a particular medical condition.

In the scientific community, it is generally acknowledged that music has an impact on the body, but it is unclear exactly how this works. Music has been shown to activate the regions of the brain that control emotions, pleasure, excitement, and motivation, as well as the hypothalamus, which controls your stress levels. There has also been nascent research showing that music can have a moderate impact in the management of pain, depression, sleep disorders, and anxiety. But given how complex both music and the brain are, it is hard to know what exactly is happening in these cases, and most existing clinical trials have been small.

“There is this magical thing that music seems to do, but nobody understands exactly what it is,” says Alexis Kopikis, a cofounder and CEO of The Sync Project. “Is it the beat, the tempo, or the time of day you are listening to it? Is it your cultural background or songs you heard when you were in high school? There are a huge number of attributes that you need to track.”

There is also the question of one’s individual taste in music. “The music that gets me going is likely very different from the music that excites you,” says Ketki Karanam, the head of science innovation at The Sync Project. “It’s very important to account for personal preferences because it is likely that music that is pleasurable to you will be more effective in alleviating pain or anxiety than music that you don’t like.”

The Sync Project App Screenshots | Click to expand

The field of music therapy is not new, but most of the big insights that have emerged thus far are not based on research. In some cases, doctors and therapists have found that music seems to have a calming effect, and encourage patients to use it, even though they do not understand the mechanism behind it. Kopikis himself has a five-year-old son with autism, and has found that music helps to snap him out of tantrums.

But there have also been claims about music that are totally untrue. Remember when pregnant women were encouraged to play Mozart to make their unborn babies smarter? The so-called “Mozart effect” was first reported by scientists in 1993, and many pregnancy guides continue to advise women to listen to classical music in their second trimester. The only problem is that this phenomenon was completely debunked in a 1999 study. “There are a lot of pseudoscientific or outright unscientific music products out there that are not based on any kind of evidence,” says Karanam. “Our goal here is to develop products that are based on very rigorously, scientifically validated claims.”

Before The Sync Project is ready to create products, the company needs to gather data. To this end, the team has created a free app that allows people to visualize how music is affecting them in real time, tracking its influence on their ability to focus, heart rate, and emotions. On the back end, The Sync Project will be gathering an enormous data set that connects people’s music listening habits and preferences with biometric data from their fitness trackers, smartphones, and smartwatches. “We are putting it all together,” Kopikis explains. “We are discovering what is going on inside your body while you are listening to music. How does it compare to when you are not listening to music, and how does it change over time? Which attributes of physiology are being changed, and can we manipulate this process to achieve a desired effect?”

On the music side, The Sync Project has brought on Tristan Jehan as an advisor. He created the music intelligence platform The Echo Nest, which analyzes every possible attribute of music to better predict consumers’ preferences, and is the principal scientist at Spotify. On the biometric side, the company is working with as many wearable devices as possible to track as many data points as possible, including subtle factors like concentration, expressiveness, and posture. The release of the Apple Watch in the coming weeks will only add to the stream of data that will flow into The Sync Project’s enormous database. The company is also working with the leading medical researchers in fields ranging from sleep to autism to analyze the data, and will then use these insights to design clinical trials in an effort to alter the body’s processes with music.

The release of The Sync Project’s app is the first step in the company’s progression. “Our focus right now is to get as many people to use the product for the purpose of gathering as much information as possible,” Kopikis says. Over the next year, the team is going to work through the data with experts and then begin to create products that will address a range of conditions. They are already in the very early stages of developing an app that will help people sleep better, which could be released in early 2016 if all the clinical studies go according to schedule. But they are also going to share their data so that other developers can come up with applications that might solve problems. “Besides the clinical work that we’re doing, we hope the data that comes through this broad outreach shows how music can affect your mood or your ability to fall asleep,” Zohar says. “These things could improve people’s everyday quality of life.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts