Featured on Forbes. Author: Samantha Walravens
The idea of music as a healing influence goes back to the Ancient Greeks, who recommended the calming music of the flute for patients with mania and the uplifting melodies of the dulcimer for people with depression. Recent research has shown that music can help regulate our moods, whether it’s listening to an upbeat playlist to motivate us to run faster or soothing melodies to help us fall asleep.
25-year-old musician-turned-entrepreneur Joanna Yu has seen the healing power of music first hand. As a young girl growing up in Shanghai, Yu’s dad suffered from a personality disorder that included depression and anger issues. She noticed he seemed happier and calmer when music was playing.
“Since I was little, I’ve been constantly searching for ways to soothe his (my dad’s) depressed mood and temper,” Yu explains. “I realized that whenever there is music playing, there is happiness on his face, a kind of smile and brightness that I rarely find with him.”
In 2017, while studying music therapy at the University of the Pacific, Yu launched Humm.ly, an app that combines music and mindfulness techniques to help people cope with mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
“As a music therapy student, part of my education involved working with clients a few hours per week,” Yu says. “I was able to see the powerful therapeutic effect music had on Alzheimer’s patients. Through music, I addressed goals like increasing fine and gross motor movement, socialization, and self-expression.”
Entertainer turned entrepreneur
Yu didn’t set out to become a tech entrepreneur. She came to the U.S. six years ago to pursue a bachelor’s degree in math and music at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. During her time as a student, she composed a number of songs with the producer of “The Voice” in China that went viral on Chinese social media.
“After college, I accepted an offer to become a contracted artist with a major entertainment company back in China,” she explains. “Unfortunately, I encountered sexual harassment from a person in power and decided to walk away from the opportunity.”
While Silicon Valley is not known to be the most welcoming place for women, Yu feels the opportunity to realize her vision as an entrepreneur far exceeds the impact she would have as a singer.
“As an entertainer, I could make a small impact through my contributions, but there were limitations, like fitting into the director’s vision. As the CEO of Humm.ly, I envision a world in which music can be utilized for the wellness of all individuals, accessible to millions of people at any time.”
Music therapy + mindfulness
Yu partnered with board-certified music therapists and music producers to create Hummly’s meditations, which address specific issues like social anxiety, workplace burnout and sleep problems.
In the episode on public speaking anxiety, calming music accompanies a guided narration which leads the listener through a scenario that includes walking on stage, facing an audience and preparing to give a speech. The narrator encourages the listener to reframe any negative perceptions (e.g., someone in the crowd frowning) into positive beliefs (e.g. he’s frowning because your insights are challenging to him), while taking slow breaths and practicing the mantra, “Carry on.”
The effect is powerful, and Yu says she uses the app regularly to help her deal with the stress of being an entrepreneur. “I am constantly working on skills like mindfulness, active listening, and empathy to help me stay positive.
One of the best pieces of advice she’s received is from her mentor Toby Zhang, a partner at CRCM Ventures, who told her to “Ignore the social expectations of being a female founder and focus fully on building your product.”
After an initial round pitching her business to investors, in which she was met with "blank stares and rejection," Yu was able to fine-tune her pitch and raise $100K from angel investors.
Humm.ly is now in the process of raising a $1.5M-$2M seed round to continue its growth.