Music is good for mental health. How an Aussie med-tech start-up designed a wellness tool transforming dementia care

South by Southwest (SXSW) celebrated its 25th Innovation Awards on March 13th, 2023. This prestigious initiative recognises “the most exciting creative developments in the connected world.”

Amongst the finalists in the ‘Health and Med Tech’ category, there was an Aussie accent this year.

And because it’s a company with music at its core, you should get to know its innovative app, helping the ageing generations manage their mental health.

PART 141 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

Music Health was founded in Sydney in 2021.

According to their LinkedIn profile, they’re still quite small personnel-wise. Nevertheless, the start-up has already positioned itself as one of the strongest players in the technological advancements space in Australia.

What stopped me in my tracks when I found out about them was their use of music for a good purpose.

For starters, I love how they explain their mission: “We empower humans to become the superheroes of their own mental health”. And it doesn’t speak to me only because I’m a Marvel fan. I strongly believe that we still don’t pay enough attention to our emotional and mental wellbeing. So I welcome, with arms wide open, any project or product that brings about change on that front.

Especially if that initiative has anything to do with music.

Numerous studies out there prove music’s “healing” effect on the human brain.

Take this one from Harvard Medical School, which states the following: “Music listeners had higher scores for mental wellbeing and slightly reduced levels of anxiety and depression compared to people overall.”

Or consider this scientific observation, published in the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Network Open: “Increasing evidence supports the ability of music to broadly promote wellbeing and health-related quality of life (HRQOL).”

Those “healing” capacities might not have been scientifically studied in the past. But music has accompanied us, humans, since the beginning. Let me give you a few examples.

The oldest instruments date back to tens of thousands of years B.C. One of the yoga practices, kirtan, uses the vocal chanting of mantras to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mental clarity, and promote feelings of peace and joy. Music, in one form or another, is also one of the school subjects in nearly every country in the world.

So it’s safe to assume that those “vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds [with] rhythm, melody, or harmony”, as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes it, do have special “powers” indeed.

You don’t even have to be a university professor to recognise that pressing play on your favourite song or playlist has that instant ‘lift-me-up’ effect.

All those scientifically-verified facts are particularly important for elderly people, however. That’s because our cognitive skills gradually decline when we age. Here’s how Music Health explains this natural process:

For Music Health, it all started with the co-founder/CEO’s personal experiences. Nicc Johnson recalls:

“My Oma (grandmother) had Alzheimer’s at a time when dementia was not well understood. It wasn’t until much later in my life [that] I learnt that dementia is not a normal part of ageing, and that genetics only make up a small part of our chances of getting dementia. Vera™ started as a project in late 2019 to support and empower both my parents with music, to keep their brains stimulated as they age.”

Let’s be clear, though. Using music in therapy is not a new idea. But you can do it in different ways. Music Health focuses its resources on helping the “ageing population stay independent for as long as possible.”

According to more research, our mental health has a significant impact on how we’re getting older. Happy, relaxed people have 40% fewer chances of developing dementia. And since music makes us happy, the equation is quite simple.

Music Health took that knowledge and transformed it into their Music Wellness Technology (MWT®). And again, to describe how the app works, they’ve used a popular culture analogy: “Vera is like a detective, and uses our proprietary MWT® to profile an individual to find the songs that form the soundtrack of their life.”

While the technology has been created to ultimately benefit elderly people with dementia, it’s actually targeted at their caregivers. They can use it as a tool to enhance the experience and care they provide every day. To find out more about the currently available products, visit Vera’s website.

From Music Health’s socials, it looks like the reaction to their idea is quite positive already. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is what some professionals working with dementia patients have to say about it:

Vera is making waves in other places, too.

To make the experience possible, what was needed in the first place was access to… music. Luckily, this innovative project with a positive social impact got the attention of one of the three major music companies. The UMG (Universal Music Group) has licensed its entire catalogue to Music Health, thus making a wealth of music available to browse.

The app has been widely featured in the press, in Australia and beyond, too. Plus, apart from the SXSW Innovation Awards, it has won a few other accolades already, like Pause Awards or Music Ally SI:X. Fast Company has included the start-up on its list of “World Changing Ideas” twice in a row.

As my parents get older, I pay special attention to the technology that can make their mental health better and their brains cognitively active for longer.

So I’m truly rooting for Music Health and Vera’s success on this side of the world. And I hope their life-improving technology will become available here soon as well.


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Here are some more Aussie music-related start-ups: