Music as Medicine? Notes on Functional Music

Issue # 
January 31, 2023

New Year, New Music

What would a New Year be without accompanying resolutions about improving one’s health? It’s no surprise then that, along with the typical exercise, nutrition, and mental health-based goals, there’s growing interest in integrative approaches to becoming a healthier “you.” 

You may have come across information about mindfulness, or an emphasis on holistic medicine – but have you heard of functional music? 

The idea of music as medicine may seem a new-fashioned note too far, but a decades long history and clinically-tested science backs its efficacy. Learn more below! 

Functional Music’s Holistic Roots

Functional music takes its name from functional medicine and, like other elements of holistic medicine, aims to treat illness and ailments in ways outside the mainstream of what Western medicine offers. It’s an area growing in popularity, buoyed by increased skepticism in the pharmaceutical industry and the wide range of conditions holistic medicine seeks to treat. 

But functional music isn’t necessarily attempting to fix your asthma or correct another physical condition – so what exactly is functional music?

Music Junction: What’s Your Function

The idea behind functional medicine is as simple as putting music to a purpose. Its application is pretty intuitive when you consider how long we’ve been making cassette mixtapes or Spotify playlists. 

The same way you’d prep a tracklist to evoke a certain feeling in yourself (or whoever you’re making the tape for), functional music seeks to create a stimulus in the listener – that could be a sense of calm, greater focus, or a wide range of other emotional states. 

Functional Music’s Ambient Origins  

Functional music’s origins in popular music goes as far back as the 1970s, when ambient composers like Brian Eno created a bonafide subculture around long-form musical sequences and albums that sought to create an audio atmosphere, rather than a hummable radio hit. This spawned a full-on ambient genre, going so far as to enter the pop-music arena with fellow ambient pioneers like Tangerine Dream

Functional music also found purchase in the form of cassette mixtapes, then CD mixtapes, and finally into the land of streaming-fueled playlists that could be shared with the click of a button, no physical media required. Some of Spotify’s most popular playlists – think “Songs to Sing in the Car” for joyful commutes or “Beast Mode” for iron-pumping workouts – adhere to the same goals of functional music. These modern sources of ambience echo Enos and Tangerine Dreams of 40 years prior, creating an environment that can help literally change the user. But while the intention behind the playlists may be clear, where’s the proof in the audio pudding?

The Facts Behind The Function

When it’s time to get down to business and turn up the jams, there’s plenty of science behind the fact that functional music can create real, psychological benefits for those who use it. 

A few of those functions? For starters, music is clinically proven to reduce stress and anxiety by literally changing the alpha waves in your brain to create a different sense of calm. But it extends to more than just mood – music can help sleep better, improve athletic performance, and even help you feel less pain

And this is only from clinical trials performed in confined environments. Just imagine the potential of music to positively affect all the other functions and environments that make up a modern life. 

Functional Music in Practice

If functional music still seems abstract, don’t worry – you probably find a way to do it every week! This form of therapeutic listening can be applied to far more settings than a long drive or a long night of homework:

  • Physical exercise: give yourself an extra boost on a challenging run or workout
  • Everyday chores: disappear into music and find pleasure in the mundane while washing the dishes or shopping for groceries
  • The office: get into a focused flow as you settle into deep work – or create a sense of calm as you prepare for a big meeting
  • Friendly gatherings: create a sense of conviviality with carefully placed music.

This is just the tip of the iceberg – the potential applications for functional music are practically as unlimited as there are functions and activities in this world – with potential applications to this very day. 

You're Probably Already Thinking Functionally

Since the music streaming revolution took hold, people now tend to lump their music into playlists dictated by moods or usage. You probably already have a few playlists of your own that create certain feelings – either intentionally or going entirely by your own instincts. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing it that way – you’re essentially nourishing yourself with the power of music! 

But Sometimes It’s Smart to Let Science Do It for You

When it’s time to perform the many tasks that make up your day or mend your multitude of emotions, it’s important to get it right by leaning into music with scientific underpinnings to provide reliability to the randomness you might otherwise shuffle through in your music library. That's why Spiritune collaborates with music therapists, neuroscientists, and music composers to maintain a therapeutic base for music personalized for your emotional state, wherever the day takes you. 

Ready to fire up the functionality? Turn to music with the Spiritune app and set a soundtrack that can help, no matter what you’re up to next.

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