Anyone can relate to the soothing and rejuvenating qualities of a classic pop song or stirring classical sonata.
Now, with the help of its innovative AI technology, one Northern start-up is applying the restorative power of music to dementia patients.
MediMusic has created an app and streaming device called MediBeat to “dispense music as medicine” by helping patients combat pain, anxiety and stress through soothing tunes.
“There are over 25,000 papers that have extolled the benefits of music to help the great thinkers from our past from Plato, Confucius, Tolstoy all the way through to Martin Luther King,” Gary Jones, MediMusic CEO and co-founder, told Prolific North.
“Where we make a difference is that we’re able to dispense music as medicine, we hope as medicine, where it reduces heart rate.”
It’s a project that has been in the making for the past eight years, evolving from his own personal experience.
After spending 36 years mostly between London and the US, he began visiting Yorkshire after his ex mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia.
“I saw her go from being a very strong-minded, strong-willed farmer’s wife looking after the cattle of a farm, to someone who had vascular dementia as a result of going into hospital from breaking a hip.
“It came on very, very quickly and it was tragic,“ he said. “The thing about dementia, it doesn’t just affect the individual who’s diagnosed with it, it also affects the family around them.”
Unable to communicate, it soon spiralled into a “frustrating” situation for her husband Brian who relied on her.
“The only time they ever really engaged together, and he was happier, was when music was playing.”
Toying around with an algorithm he’d written a few years prior, he began playing tracks to her.
“I started building playlists and had to try and calm her down when she was getting agitated based on the algorithm that I designed. And it worked.”
Monthly visits turned into regular stays as he “fell in love with this part of the world in Yorkshire”.
As his partner opted to move back to London, he decided to stay in Hull.
Gary Jones, MediMusic CEO
“I spent the time just working here and building a team. When I moved here, I didn’t know anyone,” he said. This soon changed after he joined the Centre for Digital Innovation (C4DI), a tech hub in Hull, and took part in a hackathon.
“It all grew from that,” he said. “I came up with the name that day and I thought ‘wow I’m going to do it’.”
As he was preparing to launch, Covid hit in 2020. It seemed more important than ever to steer the company’s initial focus on supporting those with dementia.
“I just pulled that forward. I’ve been really diligent in terms of making sure I only work with people in Yorkshire or from the North of England and this grows as a local company.
“There’s a lot of talent up here and I love it here,” he emphasised. MediMusic has since landed a £1.2m funding package with investment from Finance Yorkshire, the University of Hull, Sauce Consultants Limited as well as private investors to scale-up.
“I’m really pleased with the fact that I’ve been able to stick to my guns and keep it in the North of England, which is now my home.”
Gary Jones and Finance Yorkshire
Musical background and how the “DNA of music” can help patients
It wasn’t just personal experience that set the wheels in motion for MediMusic, Jones tuned into his musical background too.
“How long have you got!” he teased, on his time in the music business. “I started off working in the music industry when I was about 17-18, managing bands in my hometown and then progressed to working for major labels.”
After feeling “fed up with it” he went back to university to become a journalist and has written for titles including Dazed and Confused and Untitled before joining digital music platform provider Omnifone nine years ago, where he worked on projects for Sony, Yahoo and Intel to name a few.
It was during his time there that he met Professor Mark Sandler, who’s now on the advisory panel at MediMusic, where the duo discussed how algorithms can be used to analyse the “digital DNA” of a piece of music.
“It struck me that if computers were good enough, we could mimic the human brain’s response to music because when we listen to music, we listen to it as a whole but the brain actually splits it and processes it, so lyrics are on the left side, music is on the right side,” he explained.
“The hippocampus deals with music and memory, hence its tie-in with dementia,” he said. “It’s quite complex but the brain responds to music more than any other stimulus. It sits a lot of the time above pain pathways.”
But how does it all work?
“We analyse the digital DNA of a piece of music using algorithms and then, using ‘secret sauce’, we create a fingerprint. That fingerprint is used in building the attributes used to build a playlist that reduces heart rate over a period of 25 minutes.”
Using artificial intelligence (AI) and data about the patient such as age and fitness level, the company’s streaming device MediBeat then creates a playlist which can be integrated with the patient’s Spotify (if they have one).
After the patient slips on a pair of headphones and listens to the music, a heart rate monitor can assess how they should respond to the sequence of musical tracks.
“We can refine it as well. So if someone’s wearing a heart rate monitor, we know how somebody should respond to that track over a given time or that playlist/sequence of musical tracks. If they don’t, then we will swap tracks out to bring them down faster or slower, depending on the use case. That whole event is recorded by what we call our digital drip.”
Using machine learning, the digital drip system can swap out musical tracks if needed. During the Covid pandemic, NHS trials at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust found the heart rate of dementia patients using MediMusic reduced by 22%.
“It reduces the bad hormones like cortisol and helps someone’s pain and anxiety experience far less demanding and their medication far more performant.”
“We can turn the algorithm around the other way so they motivate us”
Although Beethoven or Mozart’s repertoire of piano sonatas might be more of a hit with older patients, the musical tracks are spread across genres from pop, rock to even metal music at a slower tempo.
“Our metal tracks are slow – it’s not really going to relax you very much. We can turn the algorithm around the other way so they motivate us, for sports rehabilitation in sports training for example.”
The possibilities might be endless, he claimed, as the musical solution could be used to ease the stress of patients under cancer palliative care or even Parkinson’s in future. But the initial focus for MediMusic is centered around easing the strain of those with pain, anxiety and dementia.
“We’ve been very strategic about how we approach this. In terms of the future, it’s about getting the message out. We’re continually undergoing efficiency, trialing and ethics to make sure that the service is refined.”
He also plans to continue building the senior team and advisory panel of scientific experts, as the company plans to launch in the US and open an office there. Behind the scenes, MediMusic is also working on launching a number of “exciting products” to expand the service further.
But ultimately, he has bigger ambitions for the company and for music too. “The long-term aim is to effectively get to a point where music will be or can be defined as a type of pseudo-medicine. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t.”