March 9, 2011 at 10:22 am

Heartbeat App Fights Pain with Music

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We often hear that music listening can be beneficial in fairly vague ways — making us smile, cry, or feel like dancing. University of Pennsylvania medical student and software developer Tim Soo is building a music app that acts in a far more concrete, life-changing way: to help alleviate chronic pain.

Soo’s Heartbeat app, which he demo’d at the recent Music Hack Day NYC, monitors the listener’s heartbeat and creates a playlist to help sooth patients suffering from chronic pain with music dynamically selected to affect heart rate. The link, Soo told, is in the studies that he has come across at Med School showing that high musical familiarity has a measurably calming effect on listeners:

“How the brain treats music varies widely depending on level of musical training, cultural background, age, and much more. However, one constant within all the confounders was this idea of familiarity. That is to say, music that was familiar, or even just music in a familiar style, could serve as a source of comfort — a relaxant. For chronic pain sufferers, the associated
mental stress is half the battle, and thus anything to ease that inner turmoil could improve a patient’s health status.”

heartbeat medical music app lowers stressThe Heartbeat app plays songs that seek to steadily bring down the patient’s
heart rate by matching and then steadily reducing the music’s pace, while also
keeping it familiar to the listener. It does this by linking a heartbeat monitor to an API from The Echo Nest (publisher of with Cycling 74′s Max/MSP, and grabbing songs from YouTube based on song tempo, “hotttnesss,” familiarity, and artist similarity. And a lower heart rate and stress level mean less pain.

At Music Hack Day, Soo included a humorous feature that plays the always energizing “Never Gonna Give You Up” by ’80s heartthrob Rick Astley (part of the practice of rickrolling) if a patient’s heart rate drops below an acceptable level. This
drew a laugh from the audience (video above), but perhaps undersold the serious potential of an application like Heartbeat. Even the beta version has far-reaching implications for the links between music and listeners’ emotional and physical states.

The app seems quite straightforward to use, particularly in a hospital environment, although it could also be helpful in home-care situations. Says Soo,

“One of the biggest potential uses I envisioned with this project was in the hospital. I didn’t want to design something that would require extra hardware or be expensive or difficult to implement. I envision this being an extremely small piece of hardware that could be installed onto a nearby [computer] or on a patient’s own laptop.”

The initial release of the basic Heartbeat app shown at Music Hack Day should appear here in the next few days, after which Soo plans to continue work on a more polished version.