The Positive Neuro-Physiological Effects of Music from Abbey Road Red's Karim Fanous

The Positive Neuro-Physiological Effects of Music from Abbey Road Red's Karim Fanous

20th May 2020
In this, the final of a three part series on music’s potential to help us cope in lockdown, the first of which was written by our Head of Digital Dom Dronska, and the second instalment written by Abbey Road's Dr Claire Renfrew, I am going to share a Red perspective on music’s effect on us neuro-physiologically; trends and happenings in the music and wellness space; apps for you to try and music for you to listen to help you study, exercise, and relax with. Thanks to David Fong for additional start-up research and writing.
Music’s neurophysiological effects

Last year we put on a Red Talk at Abbey Road on music and wellness. The opening presentation by Psychology Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya from Goldsmiths University explained some of music’s magical effects on our brains from a scientific perspective.

A key headline was that “music is the only stimulus that lights up all four core structures of the brain”. What does that mean? That perception, cognition, action and emotion are all combined into one resulting reaction; music can influence our thoughts, decisions, instincts and feelings in one harmonious fell swoop.
Ambient music

So how is music being used to influence our mood, minds and bodies? Let’s start with ambient music. Legend goes that Brian Eno invented the term ‘ambient music’ while working on his 1978 record Ambient 1: Music for Airports. On the sleeve notes he said:

“Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think…Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Eno had explored ambient music in two albums before this, Discreet Music (1975) and Music for Films (1976). He also released On Land in 1982 and these three albums with Ambient 1: Music for Airports are all considered classics in the ambient genre. In fact we’re happy to say that all four albums were re-mastered by Abbey Road’s Miles Showell and cut at half speed in 2018.
Trending towards ambient listening

Spotify recently said that one of the trends it has noticed during lockdown is that people are adding more ‘chill’ tracks to their playlists / collections. A more recent reflection of music’s natural fit with focus and calm was Moby’s decision to release his record Long Ambients 2 exclusively through meditation app Calm last year in March for an initial window, saying:

“I originally made these songs for myself because I couldn't find this type of music anywhere. Long Ambients 2 was designed to help me sleep and to help other people find calm and maybe get a good night's sleep. I hope to share it with other people who have sleep issues or battle anxiety or have a hard time calming themselves down.”

That release was followed not too much later by Sigur Rós and Above and Beyond releasing exclusives via Calm along the themes of sleep and mindfulness/yoga, as well as numerous others including artist and producer Tom Middleton who attended and contributed to our Red Talk last year.

Contextual or activity-based listening

There’s been a bridge building out from ambient music to contextual or activity-based listening for a long time. Fed by themed playlists, we’ve developed the habit of looking for music based on activities, alongside our more traditional listening. For example, music to cook with, meditate with or work to.

Music to run to

Music’s impact on physical performance in athletes was an early correlation. An early player in this space was Biobeats who created a running app with music that helped you improve your performance, but they’ve since pivoted to a general wellbeing platform.

A friend of Red, Dr Julia Jones worked with Olympic athletes pre 2000 and used music as a stimulus to entrainment and increase in performance. You can read her book The Music Diet, here.

If you’d like to try out some music and fitness apps, Rock My Run provides you with music with BPMs that adjust to your pace. Fit Radio does something similar and also offers a music library of curated DJ mixes and tracks sorted by BPM. Aaptiv integrates music into its audio-based fitness workouts. Finally, Weav Run adapts a song’s BPM without lessening its quality based on your running pace.
Music to study to

One area where ambient listening has consolidated with a purpose is ‘lo-fi hip hop’ or ‘chill hop’, which originated as music to study to. You can read an overview here or listen to one of the channels on Spotify here. You could also try Noisli, an app with background sounds that mask noises in order to aid relaxation and increase productivity.

Music and memory

Music has been shown to stimulate brain activity and memory patterns, which has led to music app developers exploring its role in Dementia care. Start-ups like Memory Tracks and SingFit are providing platforms for carers to use in order to improve the quality of life of Dementia sufferers by providing ‘activating’ music experiences.

Adaptive music for wellness and focus

There are music platforms out there which aim to help you achieve certain states like ‘sleep’, ‘relax’ or ‘focus’ by adapting music to contextual data, things like time of day, weather, your movement or biometric data like heartbeat or ECG. They use this data to evolve the music in line with an aim – help you sleep or relax for example.

One adaptive music app you can try is Endel. If allowed access, it takes your location, health and motion data from your phone and smartwatch and uses these to inform changes in the evolving music it gives you to listen to. Holon is a consumer auditive mixed reality app that generates synth music from your movements, position, weather, time of day and other available signals. generates music using AI aimed at improving focus. Fluent Music is also working on offering a dynamic music engine which adapts music to a user’s specific context.

British company Kokoon has created a pair of sleep-aiding headphones which host EEG and movement sensors and provide you with ambient noise and adaptive music designed to help you relax and sleep, which is finetuned in response to sensor data.
Similarly, startup Wave has produced an Immersive Meditation kit which includes headphones and a bolster responsive to audio. Neuvana Audio have produced earbuds that gently tone the vagus nerve while listening to music in order to relieve stress.

Wallifornia 2018 accelerator top pick LUCiD previewed a wellness chair built in partnership with furniture company Steelcase. You sit down in the chair, it monitors your heartbeat and other biodata, provides you with music to relax you. LUCiD were also employing the binaural beat approach by inserting inaudible binaural frequencies into the music experience as well.

LUCiD have recently launched their mobile app, Vibe, which you can try, here. It uses your feedback to provide and tweak playlists designed to make you feel better by reducing stress and anxiety.
A medical music future

Considering the already proved correlations between music and anxiety and stress reduction, we think we’re not too far off a future in which you may receive music in the form of adaptive soundtracks or playlists as part of your medical treatment, for instance as a supplemental aid programme to help recovery from an operation, or as a replacement for mild drug treatment in anxiety reduction.

In a study last year the track Weightless by Marconi Union, which was specifically designed to reduce anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate in collaboration with a therapist, achieved comparable reductions in anxiety pre-operation to a mild sedative. These findings led to the initation of Sync Project, which is bringing scientists and musicians together to measure how the structural properties of music impact biometrics and using the data collected to develop personalised music therapeutics. Wavepaths are also carrying out research into how adaptive music can be used for both psychedelic therapy and psychedelic therapy. is taking a practical approach through its music therapy app which hosts content created by board-certified music therapists to achieve clinically proven results.

Aside from music medicine, imagine a world in which your IoT world can monitor and access your mood using bio-data and visual and aural mood recognition and then provide you with music to relax you or make you feel better, specifically tuned to your data. Or even to enhance your concentration or PT performance. We’re living very close to this reality and we’re excited to explore it at Red. It’s something we explored and presented in this year’s Abbey Road Red Demo Day key themes, which we’ll be presenting soon in another blog post.

For now, we hope you’ve enjoyed this blog. Turn on, tune in and max out.

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