Even before there was any research to explain it or prove it, we knew that music can have healing powers—both for our bodies and minds. But as new neuroscience research has emerged, we’ve learned that singing or playing an instrument not only activates our entire brain—from areas involved in attention and memory to language processing—but can actually change it, strengthening old connections or forming new ones. Over the past 15 years, the neurologic music therapy field has evolved from that research, demonstrating the direct improvements that music can cause in people with language or cognitive difficulties due to stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, or traumatic brain injuries. And with this movement, MedRhythms emerged to harness music’s healing capabilities and extend them to more patients.

Fusing two interests for one cause

Brian Harris

Brian Harris, founder and CEO of the Boston company, is one of 250 NMT fellows in the world. The idea for MedRhythms—New England’s first neurologic music therapy company—came about very naturally for Harris, who says music and science have always been his primary passions. A trained drummer and violist since age 8, he always knew his career would involve music, but admits he didn’t want to take the performance or education route. Then he heard about music therapy.

“The idea made a lot of sense to me,” he told BostInno in a phone interview.

While enrolled in a class at the University of Maine, Harris’ excitement about the work amplified. Then, one summer he landed an internship in Maine with the only private practice music therapist, working with children and adults suffering from severe developmental delays. The first session was with a patient age 18 who was functioning physically and cognitively at the level of someone less than one year old.

“Within the first five to 10 minutes of the session, the therapist was able to elicit more results—more interactions and responses—from him than any people who work with him every single day had ever seen,” says Harris. “I knew at that moment that this was my calling.”

Harris says from there, he began to consider that there must be a neurologic reason for these responses—and if it could be explained—then there had to be a way to leverage it to help a lot more people.

Making NMT more accessible

After pursuing a Masters degree in music therapy at Lesley University in Cambridge, as well as getting certified specifically in neurologic music therapy, Harris began working at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. The outcomes of NMT were incredible, but it became increasingly clear that there was a massive need for follow-up care—and no one in the community offering to meet it. That gap inspired him to launch MedRhythms, a team of certified NMTs that provides services in patients’ homes or with full facilities contracts, last May.

“Research has shown that sometimes music is the only thing that works, and even better than traditional therapies,” Harris added. “Every single time that I see the results with patients it amazes me that this is possible.”

Since then, MedRhythms has been gaining ground. Back in January, the company partnered with the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts as a client referral source as well as the Boston University Aphasia Resource Center to start Boston’s first ever Aphasia community chorus. Owen McCarthy, who helped start, build, and fund Voxel8, came on as an advisor, and now that he’s graduated from Harvard Business School, has taken the role of President, leading the startup’s sales, business development, and marketing efforts. According to Harris, the recent focus has been on a full sales push to hospitals and directly to clients. In total, the company has five employees, but they’re looking to hire in the coming months, and additionally to expand geographically. Right now, they’re putting together a board of advisors as well.

Over the course of a given week, Harris does about 40 hours of clinical work—and unsurprisingly, he says that seeing what MedRhythms can accomplish has been extremely rewarding.

“Every single time that I see the results with patients it amazes me that this is possible—and possible with something like music,” he told BostInno. “It also amazes me that this kind of work isn’t everywhere in the world. Research has shown that sometimes music is the only thing that works, and even better than traditional therapies.”

Take Peter, for example: He had lost all ability to speak due a stroke. A YouTube video shows a rather striking before and after—merely several months of NMT had remarkable effects on his language capabilities.

“Healthcare in general can be a fairly slow-moving beat,” says Harris, citing a statistic that it takes an average of 17 years for a medical discovery to actually be implemented.

“With NMT, we’re about 16 years in,” he added. “And finally, we’re starting to see market uptake. We all know that there’s something in music that we connect to, some kind of power. But to be able to use it in this way is something special.”

All photos via MedRhythms.