Wellness Notes

From meditation apps to biofeedback-powered playlists, a soundscape of healing awaits.
Music helps reduce pain perception, and offers building blocks to better adult mental health.  Photography: @thevr

By Dimitri Ehrlich

As with the scent of fresh flowers, or an exciting kiss, the experience of hearing music is something that’s somehow new each time. Maybe that explains why music is at the center of a new wellness movement, and why wellness is also transforming the music business. It’s a two-way street: While artists like Erykah Badu, Jhené Aiko and Sigur Rós have begun offering wellness experiences including guided meditations, sound baths, mantra-chanting and aromatherapy as part of their concerts, the wellness industry is going all in on music as a form of healing, meditation and motivation.

It’s not just a matter of blasting the tunes that get you pumped at the gym. According to a recent study by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Maryland, the human brain is innately suited for music. From a neurological standpoint, music is the king of all stimuli. In fact, no other sensory input—from the smell of freshly baked bread to an amazing Swedish massage—can activate as many regions of the human brain, giving music unrivaled power to boost both mood and memory.

While Tibetan singing bowls have been a staple of new age spas for decades, technology is opening intriguing new frontiers that go far beyond the traditional gong bath. A new generation of artificial intelligence (AI)-powered apps is drawing on biofeedback information from our bodies in real time to compose music that shifts in reaction to our physical and emotional experience, with the promise of enhancing health, mood and performance. Music is beginning to take its place alongside diet and exercise as a fundamental element of an optimized lifestyle.

Wellness music is quickly becoming a core part of the streaming business. For example, new apps like Myndstream create music that promises to enhance specific wellness goals. You can choose tracks for meditation (“Lilac Dreams”), focus (“Cupid Blindfolded”), relaxation (“Standing in the Rain”) or sleep (“Nebula”), while Mubert, the first “generative” music app, allows listeners to choose a computer-generated (and therefore always unique) stream of electronic sounds to aid activities such as “study” and “dream.”

In the world of AI, Endel, based in Berlin, is an app that mines data from your phone (location, weather, time of day) and combines that with biometric and psychometric data (heart rate, physical activity) from your smartwatch. It then uses an algorithm (not a songwriter) to compose customized wellness music just for you. For less tech-savvy listeners (or if you just don’t feel like sharing all your personal data), there’s also a web version that allows you to stream various preexisting soundscapes. I tried one called “Balance,” which Endel claims is designed to “optimize brain response when you’re looking to collect and regain your center.” The music is subtle— slowly shifting patterns of single synthesizer notes held for long periods of time—and I found it did induce an immediate sense of serenity and a calm feeling of optimism and curiosity.

But you don’t need to dig around for obscure apps to find evidence that music is becoming a mainstream part of wellness: Just search Spotify for “healing” playlists, or scroll through the growing number of apps that now offer music as a primary method of meditation. One of the most popular of these apps, Calm, is going so far as to become a quasi record label for a growing number of artists who focus on wellness music. Calm now offers relaxation music by stars as diverse as Keith Urban, Sigur Rós, Sam Smith and Moby, and the app’s wellness music has been streamed more than 200 million times.

Moby began exploring the connection between music and the brain several years ago, through his collaborations with an organization in New York called the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF), co-founded by the late Oliver Sacks. “I’d always loved calm, atmospheric music, but after working with Oliver Sacks I realized that music is quite literally a viable healing modality,” says Moby. “The work that Dr. Sacks and Dr. [Concetta] Tomaino have done at the IMNF is phenomenal.”

Tomaino, who co-founded the IMNF, says that in the early 1980s, when she and Sacks first studied the effects of music on memory in people with dementia and the impact of rhythm on motor function in patients with Parkinson’s disease, there was little known about music and the brain. Today, a growing body of research indicates that music can play a significant role in healing, for alleviating conditions from depression, anxiety and pain to PTSD, Parkinson’s and dementia. Music therapy has been shown to improve social skills in kids with autism and has also been a helpful tool in the fight against Alzheimer’s, because memories of music remain intact despite the disease.

“The early mission of the IMNF was to engage the neuroscience community to help us understand how and why music and sound could influence brain function so that we could help people with a wide range of health challenges,” says Tomaino. “Today there is scientific evidence that music can help in the reduction of pain perception, improve language and communication skills after stroke or traumatic brain injury, and help people with movement disorders walk better. There is also a growing interest in the role of music to help build emotional resilience in young children, as a building block to better adult mental health.” For those of us who want medicine with no side effects, all of this is music to our ears.