Neurosymphony: A High-Resolution Look into the Brain, Set to the Music of Brain Waves

We can’t talk about how music moves us with­out talk­ing about what, exact­ly, music does to our brains. The musi­cophile neu­rol­o­gist Oliv­er Sacks made the rela­tion­ship between music and the brain one of the themes of his career, and were he alive today, he would sure­ly enjoy Neu­rosym­pho­ny, a new audio­vi­su­al expe­ri­ence of the brain now up at Aeon. It takes the high­est-res­o­lu­tion MRI scan of the human brain in exis­tence, fea­tured ear­li­er this year here at Open Cul­ture, and mash­es it up with music suit­able for a jour­ney through the cross-sec­tions of our most impres­sive organ — suit­able not just aes­thet­i­cal­ly, but also in the sense that it, too, was made from the stuff of the brain.

Orig­i­nal­ly scanned by the Lab­o­ra­to­ry for Neu­roImag­ing of Coma and Con­scious­ness (NICC) at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal in Boston, this brain imagery is sound­tracked in Neu­rosym­pho­ny by “an excerpt from the album Chapel by the US elec­tron­ic musi­cian and music-cog­ni­tion researcher Grace Leslie, in which she con­verts her brain­waves into music.” On her web site, Leslie describes her­self as “com­mit­ted to har­ness­ing the expres­sion grant­ed by new music inter­faces to bet­ter under­stand the link between music and emo­tion, with an ulti­mate goal of employ­ing musi­cal brain-com­put­er inter­faces to pro­mote well­ness.”

A few years ago, Leslie revealed her process of con­vert­ing brain waves to musi­cal sounds to BBC Future. “Using equip­ment that mon­i­tors the elec­tri­cal activ­i­ty of her brain, changes in her heart rate and sub­tle shifts in the con­duc­tance of her skin, she is cre­at­ing music from the sig­nals pro­duced by her own body while on stage,” writes Richard Gray. “Leslie plays these sig­nals through an elec­tron­ic syn­the­siz­er to pro­duce ambi­ent sounds that reflect what is going on in her body. She can also fil­ter the sounds from musi­cal instru­ments, like a flute, with the sig­nals from her body to mix them togeth­er in a com­put­er.” You can watch Leslie’s 2017 per­for­mance of anoth­er such piece, Audi­ble, in the video below.

While Leslie’s meth­ods pro­duce music quite unlike what most of us are used to, her goals go beyond the per­for­ma­tive. “Ulti­mate­ly, Leslie believes this inno­v­a­tive form of musi­cal expres­sion could be used to help those who have dif­fi­cul­ty inter­act­ing with the world, such as those with autism,” writes Gray. In this way she has some­thing in com­mon, beyond pure inter­est in the brain, with the team at the NICC, who pro­duced their ground­break­ing scans as a part of their mis­sion to fur­ther the under­stand­ing of recov­ery from trau­mat­ic brain injury. All wor­thy pur­suits, of course, but it cer­tain­ly does­n’t hurt that their by-prod­ucts include works like Neu­rosym­pho­ny that moti­vate us all to learn a bit more about the nature of our own brains.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

View/Download the High­est Res­o­lu­tion MRI Scan of a Human Brain, Reveal­ing It as We’ve Nev­er Seen It Before

Music in the Brain: Sci­en­tists Final­ly Reveal the Parts of Our Brain That Are Ded­i­cat­ed to Music

The Neu­ro­science of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instru­ments Are Fun­da­men­tal to Music

The Neu­ro­science of Drum­ming: Researchers Dis­cov­er the Secrets of Drum­ming & The Human Brain

The Sci­ence of Singing: New, High-Speed MRI Machine Images Man Singing ‘If I Only Had a Brain’

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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