Happy commuter traveling into a train listening to music with a smart phone and headphones
We’ve all been there. The race to the airport followed by long security lines and ubiquitous flight delays due to “weather” or “mechanical issues.” And once you’re comfortably seated and settling in as best as can be expected at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, turbulence starts to fray your last remaining nerve. Sound vaguely familiar? For some, the rush that comes with making it to the gate with seconds to spare can be exhilarating. But for the rest of us, the stress that’s associated with travel can sometimes bring out the worst (see (@passengershaming on Instagram if you’re interested in visual on that point).
While there are a number of ways to help combat travel-related stress, music therapy has been scientifically proven to be one of the most effective means of managing anxiety.
“Music has a very long history of being able to move someone’s psychological state from one state to another,” David John Baker, a PhD in Music Theory with a minor in Cognitive and Brain Sciences told Forbes. “For example, imagine hearing a song that reminds you of your late grandfather and being consumed with a sense of sadness or hearing your school’s Alma Mater and being washed over with an unexpected feeling of nostalgia.”
Music for Brainwaves a series of musical tracks that’s aimed to help alleviate stress brought on by travel.
With that in mind, Baker began working with music composers and neuroscientists at Goldsmiths University of London to create Brainwaves: a series of musical tracks that’s aimed to alleviate stress brought on by travel. The tracks, which range in length from 16 minutes to 20 minutes, focus on three primary fields targeting focus, anxiety and sleep. “Our logic was that if music can be used to move people from one psychological state to another, why not try to craft music specifically to help someone focus, sleep, or overcome a temporary bout of feeling anxious?” Baker said.
The project, which is backed by hotel brand CitizenM and audio creative agency Soundscape, has also received support from BOSE and utilizes tones, frequencies and rhythms that works to affect the brain in a positive way.
“The idea was that we construct a set of musical parameters that tend to be associated with those states, then continually refine this music until it is effective at gently pushing us where we want it to take us,” Baker said.
You can check out the music for Brainwaves which is available now on major music streaming platforms including Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon, Pandora, Bandcamp and Deezer. In the meantime, David Baker explained more about the science behind the project, how these tracks are different from anything else on the market today, and how music can be an effective tool in alleviating those chaotic travel moments.
Tell me about a bit about your background and how you first got involved in the Brainwaves project
Since I had just played music in undergraduate, I was advised (if I was serious about doing music cognition) to fill in the science gaps in my knowledge by doing an MSc in Music, Mind and Brain at Goldsmiths, University of London. So I basically packed up my life, moved to London and fell in love with everything about that world of research. At Goldsmiths is where I met Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen (advisor of my MSc thesis) and also got a bit involved with the world of music industry (I also have done and currently do some work in the audio branding world).
After my degree, I stayed around in London a year working with Daniel on a larger project before then moving again to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I spent the last few years completing my PhD in Music Theory with a minor in Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Louisiana State University where I was very interested in researching how tools from cognitive psychology and computational musicology can help inform how we teach musicians to hear more acutely (via aural skills training). While doing my PhD, I had still done a few projects with Daniel Müllensiefen and basically one day got an email from Daniel saying that there was an audio production company (Soundscape) that was looking to do a project where they wanted to both create and test the effects of music on travelers in various states. After hearing what they had in mind, how they also were working with Citizen M, as well as Erased Tapes, I couldn’t say no to it. I was already planning on moving to London for the last year of my Ph.D, so it was an easy choice to sign on the project.
Explain in the simplest terms how Brainwaves works from a science perspective?
In the simplest terms, when the brain is in different psychological states, scientists are able to detect what state the brain is in with various types of measures. For example, given certain imaging techniques, it’s generally possible to delineate—using just neurological signals, if someone is in a state of sleep or various degrees of wakefulness.
The validation of the music’s efficacy comes in two steps. The first was the design and the second was the actual testing. In terms of the design, what myself and Cat Smyth set out to do (at the time a current student in the same MSc program) in collaboration with Soundscape (Brad and Ollie) was to come up with a list of musical parameters taken from the music perception and cognition literature that we could give to the composers at Erased Tapes to try to get in the general ballpark of the psychological state they were to compose for.
One of the simplest parameters we gave them was that the tracks had to be on the longer side (15-20 minutes), rather than create a small piece of music that lasted only a few minutes. While that might seem kind of obvious, if you google something like “music to make you sleep” or “music to help focus” on Spotify or something, you often find playlists of music that comprise many popular-song-length tracks. The problem with this is that if you are trying to either focus or fall asleep, hearing a jarring break in the auditory scene from the track changing is going to send off a bit of an alert in your brain, which will get in the way of moving to a different psychological state. If the track is constantly changing, it’s much harder to focus as your brain tends to be interested in novelty whether you like it or not.
In addition to the time constraints of the track we also picked other musical parameters like having consistent musical timbres, middle range tempi, and restricted the temporal harmonic entropy on the tracks (or in lay person’s terms, the chords can’t change quickly). Once they had an idea of what we were looking for, and what was exciting to me as both musician and scientist, was this kind of prompt where the goals of the music come first and seeing the musical form as quite malleable, they went to the studio, cooked up a draft, then sent it back our way. After a bit of back and forth in discussing how to get the musical parameters to better suit our needs, we then went forward and tried to test how the music did in each of its respective scenarios that it was composed for.
How did you put this to the test?
Since not everyone has to focus on the same kind of task or falls asleep in the same kind of way, we then had to come up with a behavioral proxy that could reliably be a stand in for the type of activity that someone was to do. In the case of the focus condition, we borrowed a focus task from the standard behavioral psychology literature, we used a standard sleep questionnaire that I got from one of my music psychology colleagues who has done research on sleep, and in the anxiety condition we actually ended up using some of Soundscape’s in-house Virtual Reality system to simulate this situation where someone would go up in an elevator and then walk out on like the 100th floor of a building on this plank (and they actually stood on a plank when we tested them). In both the focus and anxiety conditions we set up an experiment where people would experience every condition (brainwaves music, generic music for the task, ambient noise) and for the sleep condition we did more of a longitudinal design. After collecting the data on how people then did on the proxy tasks, we then were able to run some statistics and see how the music worked. We saw the most stable responses when people were trying to focus listening to Michael Price’s track, most effective reduction of electrodermal activity (the tool they use with lie detector tests) in the anxiety condition when listening to Hogni’s track, and saw a general trend of people finding Ben Lukas Boysen’s track helpful when falling asleep when compared to other conditions.
In your experience, are there certain sounds, vibrations, musical queues that are proven to help with anxiety, stress or sleep issues?
At this point, I’d risk my scientific credentials by saying that the music psychology research community is at a clear consensus about any sounds, vibrations, or musical ideas that prove these things work universally. Everybody is different when it comes to any sort of “treatment” and to be able to show effectiveness at the individual level in terms of personalized treatment takes an incredible amount of statistical power. That said, for years the music therapy community has sort of sidestepped many of these statistical issues by developing a certain amount of human expertise through their practice that allows people to find personalized music or sounds that undoubtedly can lead to a higher level of wellness in the patients. There is definitely a big push right now to start taking music-as-medicine a bit more seriously due to its low cost and high ability for personalization, but most importantly because music is such a complex and multifaceted part of basically all human cultures. You really don’t need statistics or fancy science to show how valuable music can be for people, but that is the world we live in.
What’s the biggest differentiator in terms of how Brainwaves and the tracks you helped create differ from other products i.e. mediation music or other mindfulness apps on the market today ?
In contrast to many of the other apps that claim effectiveness, Brainwaves was created with the use of human expertise and is not the output of some clever black-box artificial intelligence that just produces some ethereal soundscape for the listener to take a sonic bath in. What I was really impressed with in this project was that the art and the science were able to exist independently of one another and really respect the other’s space. Working with the three artists, each of them was extremely open to modifying the earlier drafts of their tracks for the sake of what we were trying to accomplish on the science side of things and the artists were interested in learning about how the music was to be put to the test. From the science side, we also knew that the music that was to be created wasn’t supposed to be some deterministic output given a set of musical parameters we wanted to input; at the end of the day the artists also wanted to make a piece of art that could be released on the Erased Tapes discography. Anyone could slap together some sounds in GarageBand and get the kind of sounds you hear on meditation music albums, but to get what exists on this album you would need an unbelievably sophisticated artificial intelligence to first learn about longer musical structures in very specific styles (let alone find the data to train it on) via sheet music notation before even handing it to performers to then interpret. We decided to sidestep that problem entirely and just rely on years of expertise of human intelligence to create a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing piece of art that was created specifically to help move people to a certain psychological state.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the project or your work?
I think I covered most of the bases by giving longer answers. The only thing I would reiterate is how this is unique in that this is a uniquely human creation and one of the only projects that I have ever been a part of where I think the art and science side of things were able to stand on their own throughout the entire process. Listening to the album, I feel proud to have had a small hand in helping shape it. And I also think knowing that narrative of how the art and science came to be is important in extracting value from the music, whatever that value might be.