Berklee College partners with PureTech to study the effect of music on health

Ed Sheeran and Beyonce perform together at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Ed Sheeran and Beyonce perform together at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The Berklee College of Music is partnering with Cambridge firm PureTech on a novel project to better understand the effect of music on health.

Panos Panay, chief of the school’s year-old Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, sought out PureTech’s Sync Project after he heard its founders introduce their idea at SXSW this past March. Sync’s goal is to bring together neuroscientists who study music and the mind, and companies that track biometric data like heart-rate and body temperature. Together, the team would have unique, data-rich insights into how Beyonce’s latest track influences your heart rate, for example, or how Taylor Swift’s new album could shift your blood pressure.

“I thought there was no way someone was going to do this and for us not to be involved,” Panay said. “It’s too consistent with our view that music is more than just a mere consumable — it has medical implications and an impact on societal causes.”

The first elements of that partnership will be in place this summer, when a team of music therapy interns from Berklee will join the Sync team for several months.

In the fall, the school will host a class called “Music as Medicine” that will be open to students with concentrations in music therapy, the business of music, and electronic production and design.

A Berklee alum, Panay founded Sonicbids, a company that helps musicians book gigs, that was acquired in 2013 by a New York company called BackStage. He returned to Berklee in 2014 to head its new entrepreneurship program.

PureTech’s mission is to watch the cutting edge of science, looking for themes or focus areas that are gathering steam. The group then identifies ways to bring those discoveries to market.

The firm set up the Sync Project in March after making a case that wearable trackers were becoming more popular just as researchers were breaking new ground on the therapeutic effects of music in isolated studies. With a custom app, subscribers can choose to allow the Sync team to monitor their health data and music habits simultaneously, and draw conclusions about how the music impacts their well-being. Compared to a small-scale research study, this approach allows anyone with a smartphone to become a test subject, amplifying the reach and by extension the validity of studies that seek to link people’s musical tastes and their health.

The Sync team has assembled its own band of experts to support their work: MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, McGill University professor and neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and Tristan Jehan, who founded Echo Nest, the music analysis service that Spotify bought in 2014, are now part of the advisory board.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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