Musical Solutions to Medical Challenges

Berklee's yearlong Music and Health Innovation Challenge will culminate in a three-day hackathon in early April.

February 19, 2019


Joy Allen, chair of Berklee's Music Therapy Department

Musicians and music therapists have long known that music can have health benefits: a favorite song, for example, can reduce stress or even lower blood pressure. More recently, scientists and researchers have collaborated with musicians to study music’s physical and psychological impacts on every aspect of health. 

This year, Berklee’s Music and Health Institute is ramping up its investigative efforts in this area with the Music and Health Innovation Challenge, a series of events culminating in a three-day hackathon April 5–7. Joy Allen, chair of the Music Therapy Department, spoke with us about the challenge and its aims.

How did you come up with the idea for the Music and Health Innovation Challenge?

Music and health are both such human endeavors. We’ve known about connections between them for thousands of years. The potential of music and music-based experiences has always been there, but it hasn’t always been used.

Hospitals, medical research centers, and national organizations like the National Institute of Health, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others, are starting to study this in a new way. Researchers are collaborating with musicians and music therapists to study the impact of music across the health continuum. Music can have a positive effect on chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It can help with disease management, and obviously it has powerful psychological effects.

We saw all this happening, and we wanted to take part in the converging of these disciplines: from academics to science to healthcare to music. We wanted to provide a convening space to gather like minds to explore the possibilities of those ideas, and help accelerate those outcomes. We want to contribute to the research and policies that can help drive innovation, and that led us to the challenge. 

The Institute is partnering with two other organizations. Can you talk a bit about that? 

We are partnering with the Hacking Medicine Institute, a nonprofit organization affiliated with MIT Hacking Medicine, and with MilliporeSigma, a leading life science company that is dedicated to music. They even have their own in-house orchestra! Members of MilliporeSigma were present at the first Music and Health Exchange event, which led to the inaugural Innovation Summit we hosted last fall. They wanted to partner with us, to work on ideas at the intersection of music and science. 

One of the things about being a musician is creativity. We know how to think outside the box. Musicians actually tend to thrive in medical school, because their background in music provides structure and discipline, but also creativity and connection. To really make advances in this field, you need the collaboration between experts. 

This isn’t a typical hackathon in some ways: it’s not only about writing code to solve problems. Can you talk about that? 

Broadly defined, a hacker is someone who’s trying to find new solutions to problems. It’s not necessarily about writing computer code. So you have different pieces: musicians, music therapists, technology experts. We want to think about finding new ways to collect data, and come up with innovative solutions that may or may not involve advanced technology. 

We’re so used to thinking in our own lanes. So, when you have the opportunity to interact with someone from a different discipline, coming at the same issue from a different angle, it can be really powerful. This will be one of the first hackathons in the world centered on music and health. 

"Musicians actually tend to thrive in medical school, because their background in music provides structure and discipline, but also creativity and connection."

—Joy Allen

What challenges will the hackers be tackling? 

We have five challenge questions on our website, and we’ll have briefs related to each one. We will provide basic information, but we don’t want to limit their creativity.

Who can participate in the hackathon? 

It’s open to anybody. We want musicians, clinicians, students, people involved in the healthcare industry. Psychologists, therapists, speech language pathologists, researchers, tech experts, entrepreneurs, engineers. Anyone who’s passionate about the possibilities of music and health. 

Five winning projects will receive initial seed funding for their ideas. We’ll come back a few months later and choose three winning teams who will have the chance to present their work at HUBweek and go into full product development. 

How does this connect with the larger goals of the Music and Health Institute? 

All of us—all human beings—have a connection to music. Physical, emotional, social, spiritual. That’s what allows us to use music for health outcomes. And we really need to understand how different professions are using music in relation to health. We need more research; we need program development. 

We’re trying to develop the institute as a resource so we can impact policy and service delivery. We have so many goals: compiling and reviewing existing research, identifying gaps, defining an agenda. Serving as an open-access clearinghouse of research allows us to advance the knowledge and the work, and it also informs industry policy. We’re also hoping to provide education and training for music and health professionals. And we want to develop a center for case studies: they really capture the story so people can understand how music is being used in various ways.

To learn more about the hackathon or apply, visit or watch the video below.