We all self-medicate through music: We’ve all got our “I’m stressed” or “I need energy” playlists. But most people don’t fully grasp just how much they depend on music to manage their emotions or just how powerful the medical evidence for music therapy is. Studies reveal that not only are humans hardwired for music, but they also agree that no other stimulus positively activates so many regions of the human brain (from the amygdala to the hippocampus)—with unique powers to boost mood and memory. But when you think of formal “music therapy,” it conjures up dowdy, dusty offices in some school or medical outbuilding, with patients wearing Soviet-era headphones.
Wellness concepts meet the music industry
Suddenly, something big is happening. Music as an intentional therapy is being radically reinvented. Music is emerging as one of the hottest trends in wellness, and wellness concepts are shaking up the massive music industry. “Wellness music” is being born, and the trend takes so many forms. Funding for medical studies on music’s impact on the brain is really heating up, with researchers using biofeedback, AI and machine learning to identify how music’s structural properties (such as beat, key, chord progression and timbre) specifically impact biometrics like heart rate, brain waves and sleep patterns—so they can develop music as precision medicine for everything from pain to PTSD.
The mainstream music industry is going through a wellness transformation: from an explosion of healing playlists on the big streaming sites such as Spotify to new artists and audiences for ambient and “New New Age” music to musicians incorporating all kinds of wellness experiences into their concerts. The newest and biggest meditation apps are fast morphing into wellness music apps, with goliaths such as Calm even planning to become a whole “new kind of label” for artists to launch music for wellbeing.
Let AI be the DJ
One of the most provocative developments: the rise of “generative,” AI-powered music apps and technology platforms that pull your biological, psychological and situational data to create an utterly unique, custom-made-for-you, always-changing soundscape—to improve your mental and physical health any time you want to tune in.
And while the megatrend of ancient sound therapies (from gong baths to Tibetan singing bowls) will only rise at wellness studios and travel destinations, we’ll see more experimentation with music and acoustic experiences at both mainstream and wellness travel destinations. How about a “deep listening” excursion in the deepest rainforest with an acoustic ecologist?
Given music’s powerful impact on our brains and bodies, it’s extraordinary how little innovation there has been around intentionally designing music and sound experiences that could actively, positively change our mood, health and performance.
Change is here. Music created (and listened to) as intentional medicine will be a big trend in 2020 and beyond. It’s not about giving up your Beatles or Beyoncé fixes solely for biofeedback-based soundscapes— it’s about seeing music’s health and wellness potential anew, with far more “wellness music” options: new technologies, new experiments and new experiences.
Music as medicine
Stringent meta-reviews show music’s eye-opening impact on depression, anxiety and pain—and everything from its power to improve social skills in kids with autism to being a stronghold against Alzheimer’s, as memories of music don’t get lost to the disease. A key, recent focus has been more hospitals around the world using music therapy before surgery, as new studies like one from the University of Pennsylvania reveal that music is as powerful as a sedative in reducing patients’ anxiety.
More research is now untangling the brain mechanisms involved in listening to music and investigating the right dosages: The British Academy of Sound Therapy just found that 78 minutes daily is optimal for improving mental health. And there’s more research into evidence-based acoustic sound design: what frequencies, decibels, beats, tones, etc. have the most powerful impact, and for what outcomes.
The potential of music therapy is so immense and untapped that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) just awarded $20 million to fund a Sound Health Initiative that will undertake studies to uncover music’s mechanisms of action in the brain, as well as to identify a host of new interventions, from treating symptoms of pain, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, autism and dementia to music’s impact on childhood development. This is a huge step: serious money for serious science to understand music’s serious potential for improving human wellbeing.
With the average person now spending 6.5 hours+ a day in front of screens — bombarded by bad news, endless work, and social media strutting—there’s a distinct shift underway: a retreat from visual/digital culture into music and sound. This flight into music is being led by millennials/Gen Z: A recent global Spotify survey of 15- to 37-year-olds found that one of the five defining traits of this young demographic is that they (56 percent reporting) “use audio as an escape from their screens,” and audio is a “huge part of their everyday lives.” It’s not just the kids: A recent Sonos global survey showed the many ways all people use music to boost their wellbeing: Roughly 75 percent report they listen to music to reduce stress, and that listening to music is key to producing their best work.
From an explosion of healing wellbeing playlists on the big streaming sites to new, big audiences for ambient and “New New Age” music to musical artists incorporating all kinds of wellness into their concerts, the mainstream music industry is experiencing a serious wellness transformation. “Wellness” is becoming a new mode of listening— beyond the artist or genre.
Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and other streaming sites are increasingly serving up playlists that focus on mood-changing, stress-reducing, help-people-sleep, focus-enhancing, meditative, improve-your-workout music and soundscapes—making wellness music a core homepage channel. There are now endless loops of trance-y and tranquilizing music or channels for specific wellbeing intentions, and they boast millions of subscribers. Spotify is spawning “chill playlists” such as “Deep Focus,” “Peaceful Piano” and “Ambient Chill.”
Brand-new apps such as myndstream (from the founders of the entertainment group that made emotional music for shows such as Game of Thrones and House of Cards) create music to specifically drive daily wellbeing goals, with tracks for focus, meditation, movement, relaxation and sleep, that can be accessed on Spotify and Apple Music.
Both ambient and New Age music are finding big new audiences, as more people seek immersion in blissed-out sonic spaces and sound healing rather than power anthems or raps. NPR recently explored how ’60s/70s New Age music (once cringe-inducing for many, with its sounds of birdsong and ethereal synthesizers) is seeing a cool new wave of artists and approaches, such as Los Angeles’ Matthew David and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.
Soak in a soundbath
More artists are incorporating experiences that you would find at a wellness resort into their performances: artists such as Erykah Badu and bands such as Sigur Rós are having mass sound baths at their concerts, while Jhene Aiko’s recent concerts included guided meditations, sound baths, mantra-chanting and aromatherapy. The music + wellness festival just continues to surge. The behemoth music fests such as Latitude or Glastonbury keep adding more wellness areas/experiences, the latter recently featuring everything from indigenous spiritual elders to workshops on ayahuasca. In the future, we will see more live music meditation and full-blown “audio-wellness” festivals, such as Soft Landings planned by Morning Gloryville Founder, Samantha Moyo.
One of the most fascinating examples of the new “wellness music” is the rising wave of generative music apps and streaming services that create tailor-made, always-adapting soundscapes, using algorithms and your own biofeedback, to improve your wellbeing. Their thesis: You’ve got the healing music in you, and when combined with smart algorithms and AI, these custom sound frequencies can function like an always-there playlist you can turn to if you need to de-stress, focus or sleep.
We will see more experimentation with music and acoustic experiences at both mainstream and wellness travel destinations. If travel is all about “sights,” it will increasingly also be about music and “listening” experiences.
Beth McGroarty has led strategic communications and media relations for the Global Wellness Institute for five years, and also assists in Summit research projects, including WellnessEvidence.com. Formerly an academic, she was in the PhD program in English Literature at Stanford University, where she taught for six years and received dissertation fellowships from the Mellon and Mabel McLeod Lewis Foundations. She received her BA (summa cum laude) from Barnard College.