From the music industry pivoting to “wellness” music to new technologies that capture our biometric data to create personalized, healing soundscapes—music is undergoing a sudden wellness transformation.

By Beth McGroarty

We all self-medicate through music: We’ve all got our “I’m stressed” or “I need energy” playlists. But most people don’t fully grasp just how much they depend on music to manage their emotions or just how powerful the medical evidence for music therapy is. Studies reveal that not only are humans hardwired for music, but they also agree that no other stimulus positively activates so many regions of the human brain (from the amygdala to the hippocampus)—with unique powers to boost mood and memory. But when you think of formal “music therapy,” it conjures up dowdy, dusty greige offices in some school or medical outbuilding, with patients wearing Soviet-era headphones.

Suddenly, something big is happening. Music as an intentional therapy is being radically reinvented. Music is emerging as one of the hottest trends in wellness, and wellness concepts are shaking up the massive music industry. “Wellness music” is being born, and the trend takes so many forms. Funding for medical studies on music’s impact on the brain is really heating up, with researchers using biofeedback, AI and machine learning to identify how music’s structural properties (beat, key, chord progression and timbre) specifically impact biometrics such as heart rate, brain waves and sleep patterns—so they can develop music as precision medicine for everything from pain to PTSD.

The mainstream music industry is going through a wellness transformation: from an explosion of healing playlists on the big streaming sites such as Spotify to new artists and audiences for ambient and “New New Age” music to musicians incorporating all kinds of wellness experiences into their concerts. The newest and biggest meditation apps are fast morphing into wellness music apps, with goliaths such as Calm even planning to become a whole “new kind of label” for artists to launch music for wellbeing.


Evidence that music is strong medicine—with more studies un-riddling its unique brain mechanisms ahead

Stringent meta-reviews show music’s eye-opening impact on depression, anxiety and pain—and everything from its power to improve social skills in kids with autism to being a stronghold against Alzheimer’s, as memories of music don’t get lost to the disease. A key, recent focus has been more hospitals around the world using music therapy before surgery, as new studies like one from the University of Pennsylvania reveal that music is as powerful as a sedative in reducing patients’ anxiety.

More research is now untangling the brain mechanisms involved in listening to music and investigating the right dosages: The British Academy of Sound Therapy just found that 78 minutes daily is optimal for improving mental health. And there’s more research into evidence-based acoustic sound design: what frequencies (measured in hertz), decibels, beats, tones, etc. have the most powerful impact, and for what outcomes.

The potential of music therapy is so immense and untapped that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) just awarded $20 million to fund a Sound Health Initiative that will undertake studies to uncover music’s mechanisms of action in the brain, as well as to identify a host of new interventions, from treating symptoms of pain, PTSD, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, autism and dementia to music’s impact on childhood development. This is a huge step: serious money for serious science to understand music’s serious potential for improving human wellbeing.

Culture shift: Exhausted by screens, we’re taking sanctuary in sound

With the average person now spending 6.5 hours+ a day in front of screens]—bombarded by bad news, endless work, and social media strutting—there’s a distinct shift underway: a retreat from visual/digital culture into music and sound. This flight into music is being led by millennials/Gen Z: A recent global Spotify survey of 15- to 37-year-olds found that one of the five defining traits of this young demographic is that they (56 percent reporting) “use audio as an escape from their screens,” and audio is a “huge part of their everyday lives.” It’s not just the kids: A recent Sonos global survey showed the many ways all people use music to boost their wellbeing: Roughly 75 percent report they listen to music to reduce stress, and that listening to music is key to producing their best work.

You see the flight from visual to audio culture—from our exhausted eyes to our newly open ears—in the skyrocketing adoption of podcast-listening: Thirty-six percent of the world’s population has listened to podcasts in the last month. You see it in new music listening centers, like the rise of cool, new “listening bars” that mix community and cocktails with big vinyl listening libraries, so huge in Toyko at places such as Baobob or Paper Moon, and spreading around the world to places such as Bar Shiru in Oakland, California, or Tokyo Record Bar in New York City. You see it in hot real estate trends, including the rise in “listening rooms,” a home space where meditation can be taken with music, and with predictions that these wellness rooms loaded with state-of-the-art audio/AV equipment are “the new home theaters.”

Stream your wellbeing: The music industry pivots to wellness

From an explosion of healing wellbeing playlists on the big streaming sites to new, big audiences for ambient and “New New Age” music to musical artists incorporating all kinds of wellness into their concerts, the mainstream music industry is experiencing a serious wellness transformation. “Wellness” is becoming a new mode of listening— beyond the artist or genre.

Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and other streaming sites are increasingly serving up playlists that focus on mood-changing, stress-reducing, help-people-sleep, focus-enhancing, meditative, improve-your-workout music and soundscapes—making wellness music a core homepage channel. There are now endless loops of trance-y and tranquilizing music or channels for specific wellbeing intentions, and they boast millions of subscribers. Spotify is spawning “chill playlists” such as “Deep Focus,” “Peaceful Piano” and “Ambient Chill.”

Brand-new apps such as myndstream (from the founders of the entertainment group that made emotional music for shows such as Game of Thrones and House of Cards) create music to specifically drive daily wellbeing goals, with tracks for focus, meditation, movement, relaxation and sleep, that can be accessed on Spotify and Apple Music.

Both ambient and New Age music are finding big new audiences, as more people seek immersion in blissed-out sonic spaces and sound healing rather than power anthems or raps. NPR recently explored how ’60s/70s New Age music (once cringe-inducing for many, with its sounds of birdsong and ethereal synthesizers) is seeing a cool new wave of artists and approaches, such as Los Angeles’ Matthew David and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.

More artists are incorporating experiences that you would find at a wellness resort into their performances: Artists such as Erykah Badu and bands such as Sigur Rós are having mass sound baths at their concerts, while Jhene Aiko’s recent concerts included guided meditations, sound baths, mantra-chanting and aromatherapy. The music + wellness festival just continues to surge. The behemoth music fests such as Latitude or Glastonbury keep adding more wellness areas/experiences, the latter recently featuring everything from indigenous spiritual elders to workshops on ayahuasca. In the future, we will see more live music meditation and full-blown “audio-wellness” festivals, such as Soft Landings planned by Morning Gloryville Founder, Samantha Moyo.

Forecasting the Future

  • Given music’s incredible potential as a mental wellness intervention, it’s actually odd how little innovation there has been around designing music/sound experiences that could actively change our brains. Change has come. Music created (and listened to) as intentional medicine will be a rising trend in 2020 and beyond.
  • Funding for medical studies on music’s impact on the brain are heating up. Researchers will use biofeedback, AI and machine learning to identify how music’s structural properties (beat, key, chord progression, etc.) impact biometrics such as heart rate, brain waves and sleep patterns—so music can be developed as precision medicine for everything from pain to PTSD.
  • The wellness music (and music-as-wellness) trend is being driven by people’s exhaustion with screens and visual/digital culture; they’re hightailing it into sound. During the Coronavirus, while video streaming is up 85 percent, music-streaming apps have dipped 8 percent. We need to stop compulsively checking the bad news, detach from screens, and listen to more music. In the long months ahead, more people will—and they’ll have many more music-for-wellbeing platforms to flee to. Check out the new myndstream, to stream mindful music anytime—whether for sleep or focus.

This is an excerpt from the “Wellness Music” trend in the 2020 Global Wellness Trends Report.

This is an excerpt from the TRENDIUM, a bi-weekly communication exploring the wellness trends identified in the Global Wellness Trends Reports.

Subscribe to the TRENDIUM | View TRENDIUM Issues

One thought on “The Music Industry’s Wellness Pivot: A New Wave of Chill-out, Meditative Music to Calm Us During the Pandemic”

  1. Very insightful report. I wonder if this emerging trend will blur the line between musician and wellness practitioner as musicians begin to integrate wellness into their music and wellness practitioners begin to feature sound as a prominent element of their offerings. In addition to streamed music, soundbaths as musical performances are an example of how this trend is making its way into live music as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.