Music and Global Health Go Hand in Hand

“The world’s most famous and popular language is music,” South Korean rapper and songwriter Psy has said. It is also increasingly recognized as the world’s most accessible medicine, in part due to the diligent efforts of two of Utah’s own.

Seven months ago, Grzegorz Bulaj, an associate professor in medicinal chemistry, and Juan Diego High School junior Karl Schriewer published an article in Frontiers in Public Health advocating for music’s therapeutic value: journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00217/full They envision a Pandora or Spotify-like streaming service that uses an algorithm to select songs and musical pieces based on the mental health needs of the listener – happy and uplifting music with a positive valence for those struggling with depression, and relaxing for those in the throes of an anxiety attack, for instance. The music-streaming channel would also reflect the listener’s as well as the region’s musical preference.

“Positive-valence music with relaxing structure is the same across different cultures,” Bulaj says. “For example, 90 beats per minute can be more relaxing, but if you crank it up to 150 beats per minute it is more activating; it kind of gets you up. You can modulate emotions of a person who is listening to any given music by delivering and streaming music that has special musical structures such as rhythm, tempo, melody etc.”

Bulaj, an immigrant from Poland who’s lived in the US since 1994, has been working on music as medical treatment for the last few years. “When I learned that a specific piece of Mozart has medicinal properties, and can reduce epileptic seizures, I became interested in how to package and deliver such music in specialized, medical software.”

If Mozart’s Sonata K.448 can reduce the frequency of seizures in epilepsy patients, it isn’t far to posit that music can help with other mental disorders. “Music listening for at least 3 weeks can reduce depressive symptoms, with some randomized controlled studies reporting 19–47% improvements in depression scores,” Bulaj and Schriewer write in their publication.

Schriewer and Bulaj aren’t the only ones on to something big. A research review from two psychologists at Montreal’s McGill University analyzing more than 400 studies found that music improves the body’s immune system and is more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before a surgery. http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/music-as-medicine-has-huge-potential-study-suggests-1.1359045 A more recent study found that listening to a specific song can reduce anxiety by 65 percent. http://www.inc.com/melanie-curtin/neuroscience-says-listening-to-this-one-song-reduces-anxiety-by-up-to-65-percent.html

With one in four people in the world affected by a mental disorder, the duo’s article promoting music-streaming services as adjunct therapies for depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder could have a big impact indeed. And with the global proliferation of smartphones – there are over two billion smartphone users globally, projected to rise to 6.1 billion by 2020 – relief for millions can be a simple swipe and tap away. https://techcrunch.com/2015/06/02/6-1b-smartphone-users-globally-by-2020-overtaking-basic-fixed-phone-subscriptions/

Streaming services as the delivery method for this non-pharmacological treatment are economically feasible. “Everyone is streaming across the globe,” Bulaj says. Millions of people in the world are paying for streaming services, out of a total web-connected population of two billion, while many more use free versions of streaming sites. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/the-biggest-music-streaming-service-youve-never-heard-of-20140716. Deezer, an international song-streaming service available in 182 countries, has over 5 million paid users alone, while Spotify has 50 million worldwide paid users. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/244995/number-of-paying-spotify-subscribers/) And more than 200 million use Pandora. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandora_Radio

The global implications for music streaming in medicine are immense, Bulaj says. Music streaming can work in tandem with traditional methodologies to improve public health. “In Korea – where we have this University of Utah Asia campus – for example, there’s a very high level of suicides and a lot of anxiety and depression.” And in refugee camps hosting Syrian refugees, many of whom suffer from PTSD, specific music could be discretely piped in over loudspeakers to reduce anxiety and promote calmness throughout the day, Bulaj elaborates. In addition to improvements in global health, the beneficiaries of streamed music as medicine would also be the artists creating music who are often “typically associated with struggles to make life-supporting income,” Bulaj says. Music produced for medical purpose would be valued higher in comparison to that made for solely an entertainment purpose.  There is also intellectual property incentive for pharmaceutical companies to bundle pharmacological therapies with set tempos wafting into one’s ears using unique drug-device combinations. “Copyrights are globally protected and longer-lasting, as compared to patents,” Bulaj emphasizes.

Music as medicine impacts millions: those suffering from a mental health illness and their caregivers across the globe; doctors near and far who could see better health outcomes; global health care industries who can use this low-cost treatment to improve their value-based healthcare; and musicians from America to Poland and Zimbabwe who would be better remunerated for their creative work, Bulaj explains.

“Music engages  specific physiological mechanisms in the brain, and supports healing processes”, Bulaj says. And as it’s inexpensive, free from adverse side effects, addiction and abuse potential, enjoyable to consume even in larger quantities, and easily available anywhere one is in the world, promoting music as medicine is a win-win for all.