May is Mental Health Awareness Month here in the US. What role do you believe sound plays in maintaining a positive cognitive state?
Oleg Stavitsky: I like to say that because the world is so crazy right now, people are now almost self-medicating with sound. With all of these playlists out there, people are literally searching for ways to get through the day and protect their cognitive state, hence all of these playlists and YouTube videos. And here’s Endel. This is a project built specifically for that kind of use: It is scientifically engineered to help you achieve a certain cognitive state.
Talk a little bit about the science. You recently partnered with the neuroscience data company Arctop to commission a study that uses its technology to measure and analyze brain wave data in real time. What were some of the findings and what do they reveal about the way people consume sound today?
OS: The result of the study was this interactive graph where you could zoom in on a second-by-second basis and see where a portion of the soundscape or playlist starts and how the user’s brain reacts to it. We were able to track one’s brain wave activity, and when they were listening to a static playlist, a certain song would kick in and it would work for them, but then another one would start and it just doesn’t. Then there’s this transition between that song and the previous song, and when the new one starts, there is this natural drop in concentration. If you think about sounds for concentration, what needs to happen is you need to slowly bring people up into the zone, and a lot of music works for that, but then it’s about keeping them there. And that’s the most important part. And for that, you need consistency. You need to be following the person and looking at their biometric data in real time to constantly keep them in the zone. So for Endel, it’s not that the concentration peaks are so high; it’s that the consistency of concentration is so much higher than what someone would get with a static playlist.
Endel has had artist collaborations with electronic musicians Grimes and Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman), but you’re shifting course for your next one: philosopher Alan Watts. Why?
OS: Even though Alan Watts is technically dead, since the ’70s, we have contacted his son, who now runs the Alan Watts Foundation. This is a passion project of mine. We licensed two of his biggest talks, “World as Play” and “Pursuit of Pleasure.” These talks are so relevant for our times. Alan talks about the importance of dancing through life, of being wiggly, fluid, and flexible. He talks about relativity: How you can’t know good if you’ve not experienced bad, why it’s crucial for one side to always respect the other, how the whole world is not black and white. I find these notions very relevant for our intense, overstimulated, and polarized world.
How did you become so obsessed with sound?
OS: We’re all obsessed with music — specifically ambient music — because as Brian Eno rightfully put it, it’s as ignorable as it is interesting. You don’t even notice that it’s there. It just creates this comfortable ambiance for you to be in, but it doesn’t take your attention, you don’t lose mental energy on processing it. I now have almost like a professional disorder. Everything is a soundscape. You sit somewhere and you hear whatever: A train starts, a door creaks, a child cries. Everything immediately merges into a soundscape for me. Sometimes I want to shake that off, but it’s impossible. Everything is music to me now.
What is the value of providing an experience that crosses multiple devices in a user’s life?
OS: It can follow you everywhere during the day across all of these devices, and sometimes you can barely hear it. What I often do is put on Endel on relax mode. I would turn on Transparency mode on my AirPods Pro, and I would just go about my day. I would talk to people, I would buy coffee, I would interact with people. But there would be this, what I call, microdosing on Endel, essentially. Sound is the easiest way to control your environment. It’s so powerful, and it’s so easy to change your context. It was a no-brainer for us. So the idea is you start Endel on your iPhone and go for a run, and then you have it on your Apple Watch. Then you go to your office and you turn on noise-cancelling mode, and then you want to be in that deep work session on your Mac. This is when Endel is front and center, and it shields you from everything else around you. And then you come back home and say “Hey Siri, I want to relax,” and it pops up on your Apple TV. That’s my ultimate vision for Endel: an always-on soundscape.