If you’re like me, you’ve probably sat around during a less-than-optimally-productive practice session and wished that the music inside your brain didn’t need to go through the imperfect conduit of your body. I’ve often felt that if I didn’t have the barrier of execution to go through, I’d have an easier time getting expressing myself in exactly the way I want to–and I’m sure that many people share that wish. No matter how high a level we all play on, it’s always just that little bit short of what music forms itself in our brains. This is not the post where I tell you that we can all do that now, but it is the post where I tell you that we can do something kind of like that: we can make music with our brainwaves.
That last sentence sounds very Doc Brown from Back to the Future–you can almost see the giant, crazy contraption that you’d have to strap to your head in a brightly-lit laboratory somewhere. Despite how sci-fi the idea sounds, it is now a reality, thanks to the efforts of David Sulzer, a professor of clinical neurology, psychology, and pharmacology at Columbia University. Sulzer, who composes in addition to teaching the aforementioned subjects, says that the inspiration for the project that has yielded these results came as a result of an invitation to speak on music and the brain. The talk he gave was at City University of New York, and the subject was “groove,” the intuitive ability to know where the musical beat is. When preparing for the talk, Sulzer says that “I realized that we didn’t exactly know [how] the central nervous system of the brain practices groove.” There is a clear metronome function in the brain, but, according to Sulzer, science isn’t exactly clear on what the connection is. Regardless of the lack of clarity, the metronome function of the brain can be measured as brainwaves: “I read that if you measure electroencephalograms [which measure the motor or sensory function in the brain] from several drummers simultaneously and they start playing together, then they’ll link up. They’ll synch. And I thought that would be pretty cool and we should do that as an experiment in public to see if it’s true.” Sulzer found that it is true, but it’s also “not as clean as you’d like it.”
And so the Brainwave Music Project was born. The project is a collaboration between Sulzer and Brad Garton, the director of the Computer Music Center, and the result has been the development of a way to transmute brainwave activity into music. “We’re taking research that’s been done a long time ago,” Sulzer said. “Brainwaves were discovered almost a hundred years ago. And so when we do these concerts, I get up there and tell people about brainwaves and a bit about rhythm and the brain. Brad gets up there and says how we map them to make electronic music.”
So what are these concerts like, and what does music made directly from brainwaves even sound like? The Columbia Spectator tells it like this:
Last spring, Sulzer and Garton performed a piece titled “Reading Stephen Colbert” for a conference that was part of ImproTech Paris/New York 2012, a workshop dedicated to exploring the connection between musical improvisation and digital technologies. During the performance, Sulzer attached electrodes to his head and read excerpts from a book by Colbert. He input his brain’s voltage fluctuations into a computer program produced by Garton, which then translated the fluctuations into musical notes.
In a more musical context, Sulzer and Garton have also experimented with that longed-for translation of mental impulses directly into sound. If Sulzer wills his arm to move and has a computer that measures the brainwave, the computer–via the brain wave–can play the drums for him. Of these type of direct-translation experiments, Sulzer says, “We’ve had a lot of fun with this, getting musicians to sometimes play the music by playing the way they’re used to—with their brain telling their muscles to move—and other times just telling the brain to play.” It’s a bit like hearing the results of mental practice out loud rather than just in your head. Sulzer says, “So you can have this kind of funny phenomenon where you can try to think about music and play it without moving your fingers or tongue. Now, I won’t pretend that that works very well. It doesn’t work very well. But it works, and you can certainly make electronic music with it.”
The music is not what Sulzer would consider to be particularly beautiful. He sees most of its potential in the world of DJ’s and electronic music: “If you wanted to be a DJ and you were playing at a rave or a party or something like that, and you wanted to trigger dance music from your brainwaves, yes, you could do that.” Is this the first sign of a radical technological revolution that will result in Star Trek-like instruments that respond to your thoughts and moods? Most likely not–but now that one barrier between musical mental impulses and a real, audible result has been removed, who’s to say what will come next?