Pandora’s chief musicologist Nolan Gasser has made a career of tailor-fitting streams of music to listeners’ tastes.

Now, Gasser is taking the body of knowledge he gained as the architect of Pandora’s Music Genome Project and focusing it on helping ease the suffering of cancer patients.

The Music Genome Project was about breaking down and categorizing hundreds of music characteristics (or “genes”), then delivering streams full of songs containing the genes that people like. That same matching algorithm, along with some hard science from music therapy research, Gasser believes, can be used to “prescribe” music that will ease some of cancer’s more unpleasant symptoms.

Gasser, an acclaimed pianist and composer in his own right, is now working with members of the Integrative Medicine Department at New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on the first phases of such a therapy, and hopes the project will receive sufficient grant money to bring these ideas to fruition. Sloan Kettering has long been a pioneer in the field of music therapy and has an active Music Therapy department.

Healing music on ESPN

Gasser’s music therapy work was featured last week in an ESPN Films special called “Breaking Music Down to Its Genes,” in which he takes viewers through “The Wellness Suite,” his composition designed to contain the right traits to soothe and inspire cancer patients.

You might wonder why ESPN would produce a show about playing music for cancer patients. The point of ESPN Films’ digital shorts series The Collectors is to “profile passionate people scrounging for information to save the world’s bees or find the formula for funny,” as the network put it. Producer Jamie Schutz proposed Gasser as a subject based on his music data work with Pandora, but when he learned what he was doing with music therapy at Sloan Kettering, he thought that would be a perfect focus for the film.

The music in “The Wellness Suite” uses a number of musical techniques that music therapy research has shown to help relieve fatigue, pain, anxiety, and nausea in 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,” Gasser said, have been shown in the research literature to create positive therapeutic effects.

Longer pieces of music that have “a slow, unravelling, and narrative” quality also have been shown to captivate listeners and ease pain.

“The Wellness Suite,” Gasser said, is “an extended work that puts all these things together.” In the ESPN special, the piece is performed in front of three cancer patients. Their responses to the music tell the story (see video above).

“I came up with a melody that for me spoke of healing,” Gasser said.

Accounting for taste

“The Wellness Suite” acts as a sort of pilot for the wider body of work Gasser hopes to do with Sloan Kettering. He hopes to find existing music, and create new music, that brings to bear both the therapeutic musical styles used in the suite and the personal musical tastes of the individual cancer patients at Sloan and elsewhere.

For instance, the research shows that long, sustained drones with shifting harmonies above have the capacity for healing. “So if the patient likes jazz, we might go out and recommend modal pieces by Miles Davis or Charles Mingus that have those qualities,” Gasser said.

Sloan Kettering and Gasser hope to develop a repertoire of music for different types of patients (with different musical tastes), then conduct scientifically rigorous testing to find out if patients who undergo this approach to music therapy really fare better than patients who receive different approaches, or no music therapy at all.

Pandora's Nolan Gasser

Above: Pandora’s Nolan Gasser

Image Credit: FiveThirtyEight

Evidence exists that music can help ease discomfort, but very little has been done to affect this by linking specific musical traits to personal taste. “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 said.

He says patients will also be given some instructions on how to listen to music so that they can get the maximum benefit.

The first round of testing at Sloan Kettering will focus on using music to relieve symptoms like pain and nausea. But later tests may try to determine if music can accomplish even more in some patients, tapping the body’s innate healing powers.

“It would be nice to explore grander prospects like increasing general metabolism in the fight against cancer,” Gasser said. “The prospect that a sustained musical therapy could help in the act of healing or even reduce the spread of cancer is pretty ambitious, but it certainly can’t hurt.”

Gasser says there’s every reason for optimism. “We are musical beings; music is part of our very identity,” he said.

“We all have the capacity for music to have a positive effect on our wellbeing.”

Gasser is working on a new book called Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste that documents his work at Pandora and his 20-plus years exploring the nature of musical taste.