Neuroscientists Reconstruct a Pink Floyd Song from Listeners’ Brain Activity, with a Little Help from AI

Any­one who’s worked in an oper­at­ing room knows that many sur­geons like to put on music while they do their job, and that their work­ing sound­tracks often include sur­pris­ing artists. It hard­ly requires a leap of imag­i­na­tion to assume that there are more than a few scalpel-wield­ing Pink Floyd fans out there — scalpel-wield­ing Pink Floyd fans who will sure­ly feel their musi­cal taste vin­di­cat­ed by a study that involved play­ing “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall (Part 1)” to patients under­go­ing epilep­sy-relat­ed neu­ro­surgery. After­ward, with help from arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, the researchers were able to recon­struct the song from those patients’ record­ed brain­waves.

That this turns out to be pos­si­ble offers “a first step toward cre­at­ing more expres­sive devices to assist peo­ple who can’t speak,” writes the New York Times’ Hana Kiros. “Over the past few years, sci­en­tists have made major break­throughs in extract­ing words from the elec­tri­cal sig­nals pro­duced by the brains of peo­ple with mus­cle paral­y­sis when they attempt to speak. But a sig­nif­i­cant amount of the infor­ma­tion con­veyed through speech comes from what lin­guists call ‘prosod­ic’ ele­ments, like tone.”

It is the musi­cal ele­ments of speech, one might say, that have so far elud­ed repro­duc­tion by exist­ing brain-machine inter­faces, whose sen­tences “have a robot­ic qual­i­ty akin to how the late Stephen Hawk­ing sound­ed when he used a speech-gen­er­at­ing device,” as Robert Sanders writes in Berke­ley News.

You can hear a clip of “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall (Part 1)” as gen­er­at­ed from the researchers’ AI work with brain­wave data in the Euronews video above. Indis­tinct though it may sound, the song will come through rec­og­niz­ably even to the ears of casu­al Pink Floyd fans (irked though they’ll be by the video’s accom­pa­ny­ing it with the cov­er image from The Dark Side of the Moon). They may also feel the urge to con­tin­ue lis­ten­ing to the rest of The Wall, espe­cial­ly “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” with its school-choir deliv­ered dec­la­ra­tion that we don’t need no mind con­trol. But as for just-dawn­ing tech­nolo­gies that allow us to con­trol things with our minds — well, that would­n’t be so bad, would it?

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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

Hear a Neu­ro­sci­en­tist-Curat­ed 712-Track Playlist of Music that Caus­es Fris­son, or Musi­cal Chills

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

How Pink Floyd Built The Wall: The Album, Tour & Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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