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Turning music into medicine

Person listening to music using headphones, sitting on a couch

Season 4, Episode 3


More than 50 per cent of Canadians report that their mental health has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic. And while treatments like therapy and medication can help, they can be hard to access — and expensive. 

In this episode, we speak with the team behind a music therapy app called LUCID: Aaron Labbé, who turned to music as a source of comfort during a mental health crisis, and Frank Russo, a TMU professor and neuroscientist. 


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Amanda Cupido: This is The Forefront, a Toronto Metropolitan University podcast that explores ideas for cities. I’m Amanda Cupido.

So here’s the problem: we’re living in the midst of a mental health crisis. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has reported that in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental illness. On top of that, by the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have — or have had — a mental illness. And one more number for you, if that isn’t enough: according to the Angus Reid Institute, 54% of Canadians report that their mental health has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic.

While treatments like therapy and medication have helped countless people around the world, they can be hard to access—and expensive. Often, those who are most in need of help aren’t able to get the kind of support they need.

That’s an experience Aaron Labbé can relate to.

Aaron Labbé: It really started back when I was in music school in the United States and I suffered a mental health crisis which actually got me kicked out of school.

Amanda Cupido: Aaron was in his early 20s when the symptoms of bipolar disorder started to interfere with his schoolwork. To the administration at his school, his behaviour looked more like misconduct than a cry for help. He says it took him a long time to get back on his feet.

Aaron Labbé: There wasn’t a lot of options at the time for people who needed care and didn’t want to go the pharmacological route, for an example.

Amanda Cupido: Throughout that time, Aaron says he felt isolated, even from his close friends and family. But he could always turn back to one crucial source of comfort: music.

Aaron Labbé: I’d make these playlists, one for when I was feeling sad, one for when I was feeling a little bit more manic, one for when I was feeling anxious. And those playlists would help me kind of relax and reduce the negative emotions I was feeling at the time, basically.

Amanda Cupido: For Aaron, music was like a familiar friend during a time of loneliness. When the people around him couldn’t understand what he was going through, music made him feel seen.

So when he started to feel more like himself, he knew he wanted to go back to school to study music again—but not in the way you might expect.

Aaron Labbé: So I was really diving into this music neuroscience space. And parallel to that, I was still using music in my personal practice to help myself with my mental health. And I soon kind of merged the two worlds together. I basically was like, oh, well, this practice that’s working for me and these technologies I’m learning at school, I think I can marry them together.

Amanda Cupido: While studying New Media at TMU, Aaron says he started playing around with adding different frequencies and sounds into the music he was already listening to. For his Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis, he decided to share what he was working on with the world.

He created a large dome filled with lights and sound. You could lay down inside it with small, metal discs or electrodes attached to your skull and a pair of special headphones. People could experience a kaleidoscope of colours and music customized to their current mental state. He wanted to share the experience more widely, but the setup could be a bit cumbersome…

Aaron started to wonder if there was another way he could use the power of music to help people.

Amanda Cupido: After finishing his degree at TMU, Aaron and his friend Zoë Thomson decided to start a business devoted to using music to help people with their mental health. They called their company LUCID.

As they were building the company, they reached out to a TMU professor who had been a part of making their dome project happen.

Frank Russo: My name is Frank Russo. I’m a professor of psychology at Toronto Metropolitan University and the chief science officer for LUCID.

I’ve been a musician for most of my life, and I think I’ve been aware of the healing properties before I ever got involved in any kind of research in psychology or neuroscience.

Amanda Cupido: Frank had the scientific expertise they needed to make their dream a reality, and he was on board from the beginning.

Frank Russo: There was this ideal kind of synergy here with a real will to have some meaningful effect on the lives of people and to embrace some of the knowledge that the community of researchers working in psychology and neuroscience of music had developed. So I was really quite excited about this opportunity.

Amanda Cupido: LUCID’s first product is an app called VIBE. It uses artificial intelligence to build the perfect playlist to help you manage your mental wellness in the present moment. It does that by offering a series of tracks that are designed for “maximum absorption.”

Frank Russo: So if you’re feeling a little tense in the body and your thoughts are racing around, we start out with a piece of music that feels like it’s got a bit of tension in it. But through the progression of tracks, we’re going to move to a piece of music that’s calm.

Amanda Cupido: So for instance, your personalized LUCID playlist might begin with a song that’s a little faster and more intense, and the tracks will gradually get slower and more serene.

Frank Russo: If you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, “Hmm, I don’t know if my first choice would be to listen to an anxious piece of music if I’m feeling anxious in the moment.” We are aware of that.

One way of describing it is where you know, you’re up on the ledge, you’re not feeling so good. We’re not going to get up on the ledge with you, but we’re going to get as close as we can, safely, to talk you down off the ledge and bring you down to safety.

Amanda Cupido: And it’s not just putting songs in a certain order that creates that effect. When the team at LUCID writes music, they infuse it with something called “auditory beat stimulation,” also known as “binaural beats.”

Frank Russo: And so you may have come across YouTube videos that have these fantastic claims, like listen to these binaural beats for 5 minutes and your life will be transformed or, you know, all your worries will melt away or you will be motivated.

Amanda Cupido: This works best when you have headphones on. Then, in one ear, you hear a certain frequency. In the other ear, you would hear a sound of a slightly different frequency—a difference of about 5 hertz, to be exact.

Your brain can’t fully compute hearing two different frequencies at the same time, so it automatically combines the two tones into something in the middle. That’s when people might begin to feel a deep sense of calm.

At LUCID, they hide these special frequencies in the music.

Frank Russo: So we’ve developed a way of figuring out where we’re going to place those frequencies so that they still exist. They’re physically there, but they blend with the music. They don’t seem annoying in any way.

Amanda Cupido: At the same time, the VIBE app uses your phone camera to track your facial expressions, which helps it choose the music that suits your emotional state.

Frank Russo: The A.I. has been trained to get a sense of how you’re feeling right now, how absorbed you are by the music, and we can make adjustments on the fly.

Amanda Cupido: Aaron says that, while the more neuroscientific side of the app is important, it’s equally important that the music is enjoyable to listen to. One aspect of that is choosing the right types of sounds.

Aaron Labbé: So for example, something really simple, in a calming piece of music, you’re going to leverage sounds that are a more rounded envelope, right? So something that has a rounded envelope is like a bass guitar. It’s a very round sound. It’s not it’s not piercing your ears or anything.

Amanda Cupido: The LUCID team also checks in with listeners about this. They want to ensure their music is making real people feel the way they want to feel—whether that’s calm, or focused, or even sleepy.

Aaron Labbé: So you can almost think of it like a fact checker type thing, but it’s a mood checking algorithm.

Amanda Cupido: A recent study at TMU found that a single 24 minute listening session with LUCID’s technology helps reduce anxiety by an average of 16%.

Wondering what binaural beats sound like? Well, we’ve got a sneak preview. This is best experienced using headphones or earbuds.

[Music fades in.]

Aaron Labbé: The song opens with a very light and lush kind of guitar chord ringing out. As things move on, you start to hear a little sprinkling in the background, some reverb and the synth plays along with it. They almost dance together harmonically. In a very, very relaxing pattern.

[Music fades out.]

Amanda Cupido: So… Do you feel more relaxed?

I personally started experimenting with these kinds of frequencies and music a couple years back and I found it very effective. Especially as I was working on something I really wanted to focus on. But, sometimes it actually became too intense for me, but for the most part I do find it quite calming and I think it’s really special how our brain reacts to these kinds of sounds.

For the past few years, LUCID has been very focused on using music to help young people cope with anxiety. But now, they’re taking on an entirely new challenge: older people living with dementia. Here’s Frank.

Frank Russo: Typically in Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, you get this neural degradation in the hippocampus, so deep in the brain. It typically precedes the experience of anxiety in people living with dementia, you know, “I’m less aware of my surroundings, I tend to forget things a lot.” It’s not surprising that those folks would experience more anxiety than they were previously.

Amanda Cupido: The VIBE app includes original music composition that has specific goals in mind. But while working on this new project, Aaron, Frank and their team have discovered that recognizable music is an incredibly powerful tool.

Aaron Labbé: Familiarity was crucial for them because the reason their anxiety was happening was because of a lack of familiarity with themselves. We just finished a study and we would hear from caregivers that it was their favourite tool to give their loved one because they would smile and they would dance and they would talk about their memories for the first time in a long time.

There was one woman who used the product. She was a little bit earlier onset, and she started crying because it was the first time she could remember something from her childhood in a very long time.

Amanda Cupido: It’s amazing the effect that something as simple as music can have on someone’s outlook.

Aaron Labbé: As a musician, I never expected to have this much impact into the lives of people. I think going into it, obviously you want to, you know, tour and you want to play live and all these other things, which is a huge impact. But to be a part of someone’s medical journey I think is really unique and really special. And I think that’s something that I definitely don’t take for granted.

Amanda Cupido: While many Canadians are lobbying for universal mental health care, we still have a long way to go. But Aaron says his goal is simple: create a world where fewer people feel alone.

Aaron Labbé: To be directly a part of that in a small way, I think is really, really exciting. And I’m grateful for that for sure. You never really know the impact that you’ll have until you share your story. And then I think, you know, usually people are grateful for that when you do get the opportunity.
Amanda Cupido: Before we go, here’s Frank Russo again on why he’s grateful to work at TMU.

Frank Russo: I’ve had an opportunity to have a real impact on the lives of people and in a way that doesn’t undercut the value of my contributions. I think there’s researchers, myself included, that are publishing in those high impact journals, doing some of the fundamental science that’s influencing theory, that’s leading theory. But, on the other hand, so many of us are doing work that’s influencing the lives of individuals. And I think that’s a testament to what TMU values.

Amanda Cupido: This podcast was created for alumni and friends by University Advancement at Toronto Metropolitan University. Special thanks to our guests on today’s episode: Aaron Labbé and Frank Russo. This podcast was produced by me, Amanda Cupido, and Emily Morantz. Michael Allen was the editor for the show – and we’re all proud grads of TMU! The support team from the university includes Betty Quan, Haweya Fadal, Meredith Jordan, and Krishan Mehta. To learn more about LUCID, and for more episodes of this podcast and others, visit

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