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Peter Gabriel to advise on project to measure effects of music on health

Peter Gabriel. Larry Busacca/Getty Images
The music of Grammy-winning artist Peter Gabriel has long demonstrated a mastery of the metaphysical: In his hit song “In Your Eyes,” he sings of the connectivity that one can feel (“the light, the heat”) while locked in a romantic staring contest with your partner.

On Thursday the Boston-based firm PureTech Ventures announced that Gabriel has been added as an adviser to its Sync Project research study, launched last year, that aims to measure the physiological effects that music can have on our health.

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Berklee College of Music have been working on the project, which pulls from two datasets being created on smartphones. They have been tracking songs on apps like Pandora and Spotify to see how they influence the biometric data that’s created through health apps and wearable devices.

The goal, said Marko Ahtisaari, a former Nokia executive who co-founded the Sync Project and now serves as its chief executive, is to create a “biometric recommendation engine for music that is tailored to your body.”


But while working with researchers has been essential to getting the project off the ground, bringing artists into the mix will help enhance the creative process, said Ahtisaari, who is an adviser to Witness, Gabriel’s nonprofit that works on human rights issues.

Gabriel is one of four artists who will be working on Sync, each of whom has pushed their own boundaries when it comes to music. “They’re all people who have very creatively used technology and developed products themselves,” he said.

Another adviser is Annie Clark, the musician who performs as St. Vincent and won a Grammy last year for Best Alternative Album. She recently developed an ergonomic guitar that is designed to better fit a woman’s body.

Another is Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. He created an app for the iPad that can help listeners better appreciate symphonic works.

Jon Hopkins is the fourth artist. A classically trained pianist and electronic musician, he’s been called the “next Brian Eno,” and has been known to hypnotize himself using a relaxation method called autogenic training.


This is just the latest pet project for Gabriel, who has dabbled in music and technology for decades. He recently partnered with MIT’s Interspecies Internet project on an effort to teach sentient mammals to use the Web, a project that resulted in digital duets between primates.

Sync will be bringing together artists and neuroscientists to help with product development, Ahtisaari said, and the bulk of their research is currently targeting sleep, pain, and movement disorders.

“Music can have an effect on pain,” he said, citing research that has found that patients rely less on opioids after operations if they’re exposed to music.

He said he’s already been inspired by the collaboration with his artist advisers, one of whom said he wanted to collect “a concert hall’s worth of data,” and he envisioned live events where audiences experience music while simultaneously contributing their biometric data.

“Here we are together, and we’re listening,” Ahtisaari said.

Soon, he hopes, we’ll know: “What’s happening to our bodies?”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.