Pandora musicologist wants to prescribe music to ease cancer symptoms

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Pandora musicologist Nolan Gasser wants to use his music knowhow to create “data-driven music therapy” for cancer patients. The pianist/composer was the architect for the streaming music service’s extensive Music Genome Project, which broke music down into its essential elements — like “prevalent use of groove” for example. Now, Gasser is working with Sloan Kettering’s Integrative Medicine Department to “prescribe” music that will ease cancer symptoms such as fatigue, pain, anxiety, and nausea.

His first project, The Wellness Suite, uses musical techniques that prior music therapy research has shown to relieve cancer patients. “The slow, heartbeat-paced tempo, consonant harmony, lyrical and sustained melody, occasional bursts of rhythmic energy, the use of strings, and so forth,” explained Gasser in a short FiveThirtyEight/ESPN Films-produced documentary on the types of music therapy techniques he used.

He further hopes that he can create an algorithm that can “identify the ideal music to treat cancer-related ailments.” Going forward, he hopes to both find existing music and make new music that use both the suite’s therapeutic music styles and the personal music tastes of patients. “So if the patient likes jazz, we might go out and recommend modal pieces by Miles Davis or Charles Mingus that have those qualities.”

And then, he plans to back up his research with rigorous scientific testing to determine if there’s a benefit to his music therapy approach. “Hopefully the results of our research will show that by integrating musical features with personal taste, we can better move the needle on treating the ailments of cancer treatment.”

Gasser, with more than 20 years exploring why people like certain types of music, is certainly hopeful. He even wants to explore whether musical therapy could increase ‘general metabolism in the fight against cancer.’ While he realizes that he’s ‘ambitious,’ he believes in the power of music. “We all have the capacity for music to have a positive effect on our wellbeing,” he said.

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