Why your future playlists might be curated based on your brainwaves rather than your listening history

We’re used to curating our music library according to personal taste and suggestions based on what we’ve listened to in the past. But with neuroscience now able to customise music based on your brainwaves, we find out if our listening taste is better defined by our body chemistry

So much of technology these days is about the ability to tailor it our experiences; to personalise and curate the way in which we receive information and manage outcomes. For the most part, however, such personalisation is based on machine algorithms, predicting from a series of pre-defined categories that are designed to decipher people’s tastes. Each week, for example, Spotify will provide users with playlists based on what they have previously listened to, but I think it’s safe to say that their algorithm can be somewhat hit and miss.

However, developing neuroscience could provide a far truer personalisation, as music is instead tailored to your brain chemistry. By attuning music to different brain frequencies, it’s possible to improve your sleep quality, increase your productivity and cope with anxiety. Going forward, it may be that curation of music will be designed around the brain frequencies necessary for certain activities rather than the genres of old.

And it may not even be that long from now: companies are exploring the possibility of turning the approach into a consumer app, making this a potential normality in the not-too-distant future.

Entrainment and oscillations

Different frequencies in the brain can trigger different mental states. For example, resonating with alpha waves may assist with relaxation. Using music tied into these frequencies is part of increasing the effectiveness of therapies aimed at behavioural performance and neuronal entrainment – the synchronisation of neuronal oscillations with an external perceived rhythm – perhaps due to the brain’s expectation of more complex auditory input.

A study led by acoustic engineering expert Deirdre Bolger observed: “[The] use of [musical] stimuli is not only possible, but also advisable, insofar as it seems to magnify the level of entrainment”.

The neural oscillations that entrainment is aimed at play a big part in the various operations of your brain, acting as the communicating process between the brain regions that compose a neuronal network (sets of brain regions that interact for specific cognitive processes). While the level of alteration such oscillations would have to reach in order for you to consciously perceive a change is fairly high, understanding the patterns behind specific cognitive processes can allow for researchers to try and influence them.

Cranial Curation

The question becomes then, should we be looking to these more physiological processes to guide our listening rather than subjective taste? If something like Spotify tells you to listen to the Dead Kennedys because you’ve been digging into old school punk, should we have another app telling us to listen to a certain composition because we need to focus on getting a dissertation or presentation done?

I consider this as is an additional method, which does indeed treat music as something more than just entertainment

“You’ve got Spotify looking at your choices of song and providing suggestions on things you selected before now,” Eduardo Miranda, a professor in computer music at Plymouth University, told Quartz. “If you have something that is more connected to your own biology, it’s another way of providing services that may be more personalised.”

When we spoke to Miranda, however, he did emphasise that “this should not be taken as a substitute for the ways in which musical libraries are curated today.

“I consider this as is an additional method, which does indeed treat music as something more than just entertainment; for example, for medical or therapeutic purposes,” added Miranda.

Miranda is a musician and composer, as well as Head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth. In the past, he has used an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine to create complex string arrangements, and is now looking to create music based off the way in which rhythm affects brain activity.

His work, and that of the others in the field, suggests that the path for entrainment-type music will be to continue to develop as a tool alongside the entertainment factor of standard music.

Crossover potential

It’s worth considering of course that, in many ways, music is already a therapeutic tool, both professionally and personally used. So while the kind of music based off brain patterns may see primary use as a greater extension of that purpose, is there not a chance that “regular” musicians may begin to take into account those same patterns to incorporate into their work?

“The more musicians understand how the brain listens to music, the more informed they will be when they create,” reasons Miranda. “If you know that certain brain waves correlate to a certain mood, and if you know that the brain to produces those brain waves when it listens to a certain musical rhythms, well, there is no reason not to use this knowledge somehow, right?

“But let me tell you something very important: people are very different from each other. Our brains are very different; it’s like our fingerprints. Therefore, there isn’t such a thing as a piece of music that will resonate to everyone’s beta waves. Some people might, but not all. This is good news!”

Perhaps don’t go expecting a Nicki Minaj verse scientifically composed to trigger the neuronal network for focus, then. However, at the same time, don’t count out the idea that music may become more tightly intertwined with the actual cognitive processes, on the side of both research and entertainment.

One of the founders at Brain.fm, a site providing entrainment music designed to elicit various mental states, Junaid Kalmadi, told Quartz that producers had reached out to the site to learn how they could produce music more in key with a target audience.

If we currently think that a song may be aimed at its target audience based off lyrical themes, or a particular sound that’s currently finding popularity, it may be that the future instead sees those songs at least somewhat designed off what may hit certain biological cues.

It is a field still somewhat in its infancy, but one that could well change the very role of the music we listen to.

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