Where To Next For Functional Music?


What if music could actually be used not just to accompany an experience, but to actually improve or enhance it? 

Music classification is now less about genre and more about mood, with listeners often building their digital playlists for a specific occasion or activity. It’s music with a purpose – or functional music – and it promises to get even more interesting as scientific inquiry comes into play. The Sync Project muses on what could happen next… 

Before digital music, it was the retailer’s job to categorize artists into genres that allowed people to discover more of what they liked. This purchase-centric model worked for decades and the genre ruled the shelves.

Streaming changed all that. Data shows that people now tend to categorize their music into functional playlists, in much the same way as mix-tapes of old were made for a specific purpose, person or occasion. Unlike with mix-tapes, however, digital music platforms allow us to see how, when, where and even why people listen to certain tracks at certain times. As a result, the industry has essentially shifted from a purchase-centric model to one based on consumption, with genre now taking second place to other variables, such as mood and context. 

Along with this shift comes increased interest in the term “functional music”, in which we refer to a situation where music is used to effect a specific purpose. Currently that purpose is mainly about the music accompanying an experience – whether it be driving, running, relaxing or something else. Yet what if music could actually be used not just to accompany an experience, but to actually improve or enhance it? Then we are talking about music for safer driving, faster running and even deeper relaxation…

Music services like Spotify and Apple Music have essentially created focus groups for research into the effects of certain music for a specific group of people

To understand the potential here we need to consider the data that digital music services are currently gathering about listeners. When a service such as Spotify uses a collaborative-filtering method to recommend new tracks (see upcoming posts for more), they are essentially placing a given listener in a bucket with a group of other listeners who all have a similar aural response to a given track or tracks. In essence, these listeners all respond to a similar musical algorithm. It would stand to reason therefore that these listeners would also be drawn to the same kinds of music when performing a given activity, such as our earlier examples of driving, running and relaxation. 

This is where it gets interesting for science. Because what music services have essentially done is create focus groups that allow for deeper exploration into the effects of a given kind of music for a specific group of people. For instance, if one group of listeners all like a certain kind of song for a given purpose – let’s say, for running – then which song (or set of songs) has the members of that group running the fastest? At the same time, scientists have been conducting controlled experiments to determine music’s effect on medical targets such as pain, relaxation, sleep, fitness and athletic performance and disorders of movement. Most research is done in the confines of a controlled lab environment (with limited sample size and diversity) and rarely leverage the access to someone’s music listening habits that modern streaming services have revealed. Promising findings have motivated many researchers, and the team here at Sync Project, to leverage these emerging technologies in music and science to get a deeper understanding of these powerful interactions between music and the body.

What we’re looking at is a much deeper and more nuanced way to identify and explore responses to music among musically similar groups of people than has ever been possible before. This has broad and exciting implications for multiple industries, including the music industry itself. It’s also an interesting starting point for studying other similarities between music listeners that may not have been possible to discover by any other means, that may one day power new music based treatments tailored to specific to an individuals needs.

If you’d like to join The Sync Project on this journey to understand and unlock the deeper effects of music, then please visit https://go.syncproject.co and share a track that helps you to perform a specific activity.

Written by Ketki Karanam