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Big Idea

Can ambient music make you more productive? This company thinks so.

At Brain.fm, human composers and AI collaborate on instrumental music.

By Jim Sullivan

Music can stimulate or soothe, create a refuge for shared sorrow, erect a palace for communal joy, and express the inexpressible. But what if none of these fits your needs?

The Problem

Most music is intended to engage. But in the mid-1970s, Brian Eno, former synthesist for the English art-rock group Roxy Music, fashioned a style of music that was the exact opposite of that. Eno called it “ambient.” Intentionally mild and unobtrusive but vehemently non-schmaltzy, mostly made with piano and synthesizer, ambient music had no lyrics and no hooks. Eno defined ambient music “as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Over time, many other musicians joined the quiet party, using different instrumentation. They created it as a background soundtrack to people’s lives. Fans felt the music conveyed calm, but the music wasn’t scientifically tested to ensure that result. And what if you didn’t just want calm, but something that helped you focus?

The Solution

Brain.fm, a New York-based company, uses artificial intelligence and scientific testing to deliver instrumental music that’s custom-designed for specific needs and goals, such as focusing on performance, relaxation or sleep.

“I call it the world’s most advanced background noise,” says Dan Clark, Brain.fm’s 30-year-old CEO. “It’s like wind at your back. We can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, but if you’re trying to do something, we can make it a little easier.”

Founded in 2015, Brain.fm now has more than 5,000 hours of music available, in three basic genres and 36 subgenres. The Focus genre, with subdivisions like Atmospheric, Drone, and Cinematic, is the prime choice for 90 percent of customers. Headphones or earbuds are highly recommended because of the spatial quality — call it audio 3-D — in which listeners absorb the sound.

“I call it the world’s most advanced background noise.”

Brain.fm CEO Dan Clark

Forty-three years after the German electronic band Kraftwerk released an album called “The Man-Machine,” humans and computers are collaborating to produce Brain.fm’s music. “We actually have human composers that are writing pieces and samples of music,” says Clark, “and we have an intelligent system to piece that music together and apply technology in real time to have the effects that we want.”

The company has enlisted four scientists to study the way music affects our brains. Their studies inform the AI or the creation of the music.

One of those scientists is Psyche Loui, a Northeastern University music professor and a classical and jazz violinist. Loui runs labs studying people’s responses to music, such as its effect on Alzheimer’s patients, in addition to her work for Brain.fm.

Click to play La Ville Du Nuit from Brain.fm

“The goal there is to come up with music algorithmically that can be tuned toward certain states of the mind,” says Loui. “There are quantifiable ways of determining which neurons in the brain work together.”

Brain.fm plays various kinds of background music — its own and from other sources — to test listeners’ reactions. “We use a simple game as a proxy for focus, a test commonly used in psychology to measure sustained attention,” says Kevin Woods, Brain.fm’s director of science. The company uses the results to fine-tune its sounds. The early work done by Loui, says Woods, earned the company a National Science Foundation grant, which it used to carry out large-scale behavioral studies and neuroimaging work.

The Challenge

Not everybody thinks Brain.fm’s product is “music,” nor do they respond to it the same way. Two former members of the Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma spent some time listening to it for this article. 

“It’s so functional I find it irritating,” says guitarist Roger Miller. “It veers very close to Muzak, designed for a purpose. And what is this purpose? Should we work harder? It’s designed for you to go through the day and not think about the day. It facilitates acceptance into this world. I want to follow the sounds.”

“It seems cool,” counters drummer Peter Prescott. “I don’t see anything wrong aesthetically. Why shouldn’t there be a website that fits into this kind of moment, a modernist idea that can be delivered the way it is and makes ambient accessible? … Right now, with people stuck inside for the past year, this may be a reset period in terms of how we listen to music.”

The Big Picture

Brain.fm has 150,000-plus subscribers, about 20 percent of which are businesses, including some Fortune 500 companies, that offer Brain.fm as a perk to employees. It’s not whistle while you work, exactly; more like, plug in while you work.

Woods says listeners feel the music’s effects quickly, often within five minutes under the right conditions. Brain.fm has recently added a “neural effect filter” to its app, which allows listeners to adjust settings to enhance the music’s effects. “People have different kinds of sensitivity levels to the effects we’re producing,” Clark says. “Everyone has to find the right level that works for them.”

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.

Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti

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