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The Sync Project research initiative collects biological data

When listeners hear Taylor Swift or other music, data are collected.Invision via Associated Press

You may keep your Taylor Swift obsession hidden from your co-workers, but not from science.

A new research initiative called the Sync Project aims to track how the brain and body respond to music through an app that collects biological data while your favorite jams stream. So when a person plugs in headphones and heads to work, the activity tracker on the wrist will be able to see how the heart rate changes when Swift’s “Shake It Off” transitions to One Direction’s “Steal My Girl.”

Researchers have gathered preliminary evidence suggesting that music, among the oldest and most enigmatic of human creations, can sometimes quell symptoms of neurological disorders or depression, for example, or increase a person’s tolerance for pain. The goal of the Sync Project, founded by the Boston firm PureTech Ventures, is to provide robust evidence for its health effects by studying a lot more people and a lot more data.


The technology to back such an investigation is ripe, explained Alexis Kopikis, a cofounder of the Sync Project and a partner at PureTech.

Services like Pandora and Spotify have made millions of songs instantly accessible to any subscriber with a smartphone; the same devices that are simultaneously collecting heart rate and body temperature information through wearable trackers. Those music streaming companies are also amassing a wealth of information about music tastes and preferences.

“Now is the time to put all of these things together, to figure out what is going on in your body when you listen to this music,” Kopikis said.

These ideas make landfall in the form of an app that anyone with a smartphone will soon be able to download. (It is currently being alpha tested.) With millions rather than dozens of participants, and vastly more data, the hope is that Sync’s scientist collaborators will arrive at surer answers, to better deploy the power of music to heal.


Because people have very personal tastes in music, a large data set is all the more important, said Ketki Karanam, cofounder of the Sync Project and an associate at PureTech.

The Sync team has assembled a formidable team of advisers. Joi Ito, a PureTech board member and director of the MIT Media Lab is on that list, along with Robert Zatorre, a McGill University neuroscientist who leads one of the biggest labs studying the brain and music, and Tristan Jehan, who founded the music analysis software Echo Nest, which was acquired by Spotify in March of last year.

The Sync Project shares a vision with the makers of ResearchKit, a brand-new platform that Apple developed with doctors. It allows anyone with a smartphone to enroll in a study through an app on their iPhone, and allows doctors to easily create apps that are tailored to their own research, the company announced at a media event this week.

Both ResearchKit and the Sync Project seek to breach the boundaries of traditional research, which are typically episodic sessions in a lab or hospital — to a model that can include millions of participants and reveal a detailed picture of human behavior and responses through the day.

“We were extremely excited to see Apple explain to the world [what we are doing] so we can stop having that conversation,” Kopikis joked.

Kopikis has a personal connection to the Sync Project: His 5-year-old has been diagnosed with autism, and music is one of the things that soothes his agitated episodes. If his son was enrolled in a traditional hospital study observing the effect of music on symptoms of autism, he pointed out, the episode would have progressed or retreated by the time he drove his son to the testing room.


Nidhi Subbaraman can be reached
at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @NidhiSubs.