The Sound of Science

Piano pioneer Rosey Chan is uniting music and science to help improve our health and happiness with what we’re putting in our ears.

Words by Pete Samson
Photography by Gavin Bond

Throughout her life, music has provided Rosey Chan with support, inspiration and much more. As a young girl, it helped give her a sense of belonging and achievement, and it grew into her lifelong passion and livelihood.

And as a pioneering professional pianist, Rosey has now become renowned for her collaborations with artists of different mediums, pushing the boundaries of how music and art can affect our senses and emotions.

Then, during the coronavirus lockdown, Rosey began to experience and examine the power of music in a whole new way. She dove deeper into the ability of sound to heal, and launched the Sonic Lab, a virtual lab to combine music, science and technology and to study how we can use music to enhance our health and happiness. She also recently released the album ‘Sonic Apothecary’ on Apple’s tastemaking Platoon label, a science-backed collection of songs designed to help improve our mood.

Rosey has worked with acclaimed musicians from the producer William Orbit to The Police frontman Sting, and artists from Marina Abramovic to Charles Dance. She’s performed in the world’s grandest venues, including London’s Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York.

And here she discusses her latest work, focusing on the impact of music on our minds as we seek peace and comfort at home.

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Where did your interest in uniting music and science come from?

I’ve always been interested in how music can positively impact the brain. And especially through lockdown, I saw myself as an interface between music, science, technology and innovation, and how to create these things to unite people and heal people. So I started delving into these different aspects deeper.

I have always been into multi-sensory experiences, but this [lockdown] experience steered me into writing and approaching music in a different way. It made me look inward. It was just me and my piano, I was alone, my partner was away for five months, and it was very isolating. And organically, the piano is an extension of myself, it’s my way of meditation and my way of healing myself. So that’s where it started, and then friends and family asked for some music for their kids, for their teething babies, for themselves to help stimulate creativity in their own environments, because suddenly they couldn’t get to their studios, to their workspaces.

Throughout the pandemic people have been turning towards music that is healing. So I started doing some research and contacting some people who were leaders in their field, the neuroscientists, the music therapists, some doctor friends. I was just having conversations with them, and chatting to them about what is it that pinpoints what timbre, what genre, what key? What are the things that can help stimulate a good night’s sleep, that can help stimulate positivity and creativity? A lot of the findings are that instrumental and classical music is the best, but only Mozart and Beethoven have really been tested.

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

So I decided to launch a new creative entity called Sonic Lab, which is an interface between all those different themes of music, science, technology and innovation. It’s a lab with music at the core, to understand music in a deeper sense, sensing all our desires and our nightmares, to create music that’s both healing and innovative. We’re doing white papers with scientists where we will test the effects of music and the brain on 300 people.

We’re also creating VR and AR experiences with visual artists that I work with. Tom Dixon, the designer, is a friend and collaborator and I’m working with him on sound baths, and he ended up making some beautiful instruments for me. I love this cross-fertilization of different disciplines, and bringing people together through music and visuals. It’s taking tradition and mixing it with modernity and presenting it in a way that can enhance people’s emotions for the better.

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Tell me more about your album ‘Sonic Apothecary’ specifically? I went to the site and answered some questions about my mood and needs and it recommended me some specific songs based on my brainwave state. It’s an interesting concept…

After talking with lots of different neuroscientists, I started working with Lucid, which is a Canadian-based company that has an app that uses human and AI technology to predict emotional states and help you with sleep, anxiety etc. They analyzed a lot of the tracks on my album, and then we put a single out that they enhanced and treated, which was specifically for helping anxiety. They produced a document where you can see the patterns and the different brainwave states in my songs. It can go from peaceful and calm to excited, then there’s compassion and a lot of nostalgia in there. They helped me understand how it works, and ever since then I continue to work on new material with their information. So when I want to write an album for sleep, for example, I have a roadmap in my mind of what’s the best way to do it.

Instrumental music is good, because lyrics go to another part of the brain. Slow classical music that has a steady pulse and doesn’t move around too much. When you listen to Philip Glass, for example, the frequency is very in the center. It’s very soothing, and rare that he goes really low or high. So it’s interesting to use everything that I’m learning and use that to refine my compositions.

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

It’s very cool as so many people, me included, like listening to classical music but don’t know too much about it. So we just go to Spotify and search ‘relaxing classical music’ or ‘relaxing piano music’ and some of it is good, and some of it is not. So to have this kind of music expertly created and curated by someone with your knowledge and talent is fantastic.

In the same way we shouldn’t eat rubbish and should think about what we’re putting in our bodies, it’s the same with our ears. If you have a kid you are trying to calm, I don’t want to pollute them with a bad playlist. I really want to think about it. The tiniest things could affect their brain.

I love electronic music too. So I said, ‘How about doing a nice bed of synth sounds?’ But some papers have suggested that electronic synth pads can be more damaging to the brain than acoustic music. But I want to find out if that’s true, as I find a lot of electronic music very relaxing, so that’s why we’re doing these studies.

It has really blown my mind. And I’m still scratching the surface. But I have now formed an advisory board of neuroscientists and I hope that one day we can get all these neuroscientists and musicians together under one roof to chat. Some of them have very strong opposing opinions, so it will be a great conversation!

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

How has music generally been a source of healing and inspiration in your life? And what else have you done to keep sane during the pandemic?

It’s the one thing that I was really good at when I was a kid. I was not very academic, even though my father is an academic, we were so opposite. I grew up in England, and I was the only Chinese kid at school, and the only place that could really hide and feel safe was in the music room, which had one upright piano. And I was very lucky that I had a good piano teacher, a lot of my friends didn’t and they gave up when they were very young, but she made things fun for me.

Meditation really helps me now. Also my label Platoon have been fantastic, they’ve provided these handbooks for all their artists to help you with everything from your health to how to use the time wisely and stay creative. It’s a really great, supportive community and I feel really lucky to be part of that group.

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Rosey Chan // 📸: Gavin Bond

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring artists and leaders.


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