Pitch Perfect

09.18.15 8:45 AM ET

Can Music Help Cure Cancer? Nolan Gasser’s Pitch Perfect Experiment

Musicologist Nolan Gasser is working with cancer patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York to discover if music can alleviate their pain and anxiety.

Anyone who has ever been proximitous to cancer—whether as a patient or a loved one of a patient—knows how awful it is, how corrosive. Anything that can alleviate even a scintilla of its physical and emotional effects on the sufferer and those close to them should be welcomed.

To that end, Nolan Gasser, chief musicologist (now emeritus) at the music site, Pandora, and architect of the company’s music genome project—which seeks to align the musical “identities” of songs with the music preferences of listeners—is collaborating with Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in Manhattan to pilot an “algorithm” to provide personalized musical therapy for cancer patients.

The idea is to align the intrinsic musical attributes of a piece and the tastes of a patient. The result would formulate playlists to alleviate patients’ pain and anxiety.

Gasser will be speaking about his work today, Friday, at the inaugural Lincoln Center Global Exchange, an event that brings together international leaders, artists, scientists—and guest speakers including Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, parent company of The Daily Beast—to “explore how art and culture can become even more effective in fostering healthy citizens, vibrant cities and strong communities.”

Gasser has long been interested in what our musical taste is, and what that says about us. Next year, Flat Iron Press (Macmillan) will publish a book by him, called Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste. An upcoming TEDx Talk, in November, is called “Engaging Your Musical Taste.”

Nolan is also the subject of a documentary for the ESPN FiveThirtyEight series, The Collectors, entitled Breaking Music Down to Its Genes, which was released in May, and is composing a new musical, Benny and Joon, to be produced in New York next year.

Gasser’s life is bathed in music. He grew up in Southern California, in a small town called La Mirada near Disneyland.

“I came from a family that loved music, but not particularly a musical family professionally. There was a piano in the house which helped, and my uncle who played quite well, classical exclusively.”

Jack Hecker

Gasser’s uncle got quite far in playing competitions in his teens, and imparted his great love of music to Gasser, especially Gasser’s love of classical music.

Gasser started playing the piano at age 4. However, the only piano teacher in town said for Gasser to return when he was 6. “It was probably a good thing I had no piano teacher in those early years: It did force me to use my ear, and experiment with sounds.”

Gasser quickly became a pretty eclectic musician: from ages 8 to 10, he played Scott Joplin and Elton John on the piano in a local park. “It was a very formative thing,” Gasser said.

Aged 11, Gasser and a good friend would go to the arcade: One day his friend dared him to play the piano in the food court nearby. He did, the crowd loved him, and the mall hired him to play the piano for customers every weekend—everything from Led Zeppelin, Scott Joplin, Mozart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

He said he “quickly discerned” that if he wanted to be a professional musician, he would “have to play it all.” This being pre-Internet he learned songs by listening to them, or buying sheet music.

Gasser started playing in bands, and had a wide taste compared to a lot of musicians, he said. He laughs that, raised on rock and roll, he loved Queen while his friend loved Kiss—a small enough difference to create a schism between them, which “just shows the power of musical identity.” He likes jazz, the hard-bop style, swing, contemporary, although “if it starts to get too out there, I lose interest myself.”

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Gasser majored in music at college, then studied for a master’s in composition. When studying in Paris, he “found,” as he put it, the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez, a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci’s whose music was so different in sound and construction from Bach it “blew” Gasser’s mind. “I had to understand it.”

Next came a Ph.D. in renaissance musicology, which led to Gasser’s job at Pandora. He said he always had an interest in the role of music in society and one’s life, and what it is that draws us to certain kinds of music. This led Gasser to begin researching music and neuroscience, and music and biology.

With the cancer study at Sloan Kettering, which will survey 100 patients, Gasser is trying to make links between an individual piece of music and the individual taste of a patient, then compose a playlist from that to alleviate symptoms like anxiety, fatigue, pain, and stress.

He has already composed “The Wellness Suite” for string quartet, flute and piano: a piece to alleviate the symptoms suffered by cancer patients.

Gasser said he is examining what our musical taste is from scientific, cultural, and musical standpoints: Someone’s musical genotype is akin to a musical taste profile.

“Our brains listen to music in a much more complex fashion than they do when people are speaking,” Gasser said. “We can’t keep track of the detail of two or three people talking at the same time, but our brains can process and comprehend two or more melodies simultaneously, which means our brains move to understand music cognitively, emotionally, and use memory in more complex ways than it does with speech.”

The cerebellum helps us to understand rhythm, while the auditory cortex enables us to tell the difference between a piano and a flute, among much more.

There isn’t a simple science to the particular genre you like—pop, opera, classical or jazz. “It’s a combination of cultural background, and then looking at musical attributes, like melody, instrumentation, timbre, and text,” said Gasser.

The genres are not distinct in their attributes. Or as Gasser put it: “There is a connection between Shostakovich and Katy Perry.”

His book, Gasser hopes, is going to extend beyond neuroscience to talk about what makes us musical, and why we gravitate to the music we love, from Gregorian chants to Dr. Dre to punk to all kinds of world music. Gasser hopes people reading the book, without musical training, can understand and listen in a more engaged and intent way, thereby increasing the pleasure they gain from music and the power music has on them while also expanding people’s musical horizons.

What are the outstanding mysteries of music and the mind? I ask Gasser.

“Is music an adaptive trait, is music more than what [cognitive scientist] Steven Pinker called ‘auditory cheesecake?’” said Gasser. “Lots of people disagree with that: [neurologist and author] Oliver Sacks was one of them.” He was fascinated with music’s role and the mind, said Gasser.

“There is some evidence that music preceded language as a form of communication. I argue, even though I’m not an evolutionary biologist, that music did play an adaptive role. Part of why we are human, why we are who we are, is by virtue of our ability to process and enjoy, synthesize, understand, and communicate with music. The music genome influences the human genome.”

And perhaps, Gasser hopes, the complex web of links and influences of music and the mind will ultimately help cancer patients. Let’s hope he takes his piano to the hospital.

Follow Friday's events at Lincoln Center Global Exchange here, and on Facebook, and Twitter.

This evening’s live performances can be watched here.