HOST INTRO: And now to an experiment in science and music. You can hear computer generated synths, sampling and electronic basslines in most music made today. Two scientists here at Columbia University are working to humanize these sounds using a scientific discovery from 1924 — brainwaves. On Tuesday, Eleanor Stanford discovered that music made with the mind is starting to convince both musicians and producers.
Maryam Zaringhalam from Art Lab is hosting an evening of musical experiments at Cameo club in Williamsburg.
ZARINGHALAM: Yeah! Science and art! Thanks so much for coming out here on this beautiful evening to celebrate the brain. (0:08)
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Brainwaves will be the musical accompaniment this evening. William Hooker is a well-known New York jazz musician. He has performed with countless groups and bands. He is skeptical about the experiment.
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HOOKER: I don’t know what to expect because I guess my main question is what are Brad and Dave trying to accomplish? (0:05)
Brad Garton and Dave Sulzer run the Brainwave Music Project. They have been trying to convince Hooker to play alongside his brain for a long time.
Hooker takes to the stage
SOUND: FADE UP DRUM SOLO
And plays a conventional jazz drum solo. He plays for ten minutes
SOUND: FADE UP APPLAUSE
In deep concentration.
SOUND: FADE DOWN DRUM
SOUND: BAR AMBI AS BED
Now Sulzer tells the audience they will add Hooker’s brain to the performance. They put a headset of electrode patches onto Hooker’s head.
SOUND: FADE UP PERFORMANCE SOUND
Immediately, his brainwaves are displayed in red spikes on a screen behind the stage. And he starts playing the drums again, this time with his eyes closed.
SOUND: FADE UP PERFORMANCE
After a minute or two, you can hear another sound.
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You hear that whirring background noise that sounds a little like the ocean? Those are Hooker’s brainwaves.
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In effect, Hooker is jamming with his own brain. The longer he plays, the more rhythmic it becomes.
FADE UP PERFORMANCE / APPLAUSE
Hooker told the audience later that the performance felt very natural to him.
HOOKER: It’s really not foreign at all – this is what we do. And the more intense it gets, the deeper I get into it in terms of my own meditative thought becoming one with the music. It was kinda calm. (0:15)
By the end of the evening, Hooker is a convert
HOOKER: I am interested in working with David and Brad regarding not streams of data but streams of consciousness. I know that the brain can do so many more things than a computer. (0:18)
So how exactly are Hooker’s brainwaves turned into music? Brad Garton explains.
GARTON: Basically it’s just an exercise in what we call data mapping: you have one signal, you want to turn it into something else. And it’s funny, because your brain does that effortlessly, very very easily. (0:08)
Garton has been working on the software to make this possible for five years. The headset Hooker wears measures the signals sent by his brain in response to sensory stimulation – like reacting to a pinch. The software then translates the waves into samples of a certain frequency. These have been chosen by Garton. These sounds can be played back to the musician and the audience in almost real time.
Sulzer believes that electronic music as we know it today is actually alienating the listener. In a later conversation he said that even though the computer is the instrument used to make music, responding to the rhythms of the human body is still important.
SULZER: I think it would be great if we could improve the instrument so that it doesn’t always sound like something without breath (0:06)
Neha Sha has a background in jazz. She now produces electronic dance music. And she heard potential in the recordings.
SHA: That’s so interesting. In terms of just sound and as an engineer, that would be like a base sound that would take most engineers a fair few hours to tweak to get there. So it’s coming at you already there. It’s pretty special. (0:27)
For Sha, the frequency is key. She hears the same frequency in the Brainwave Music Project’s sounds as she works to build in her own tracks. Usually, she must do this by layering textured sound. These are the frequencies that will induce adrenaline or serotonin in the listener.
SHA: And that’s a really important part of production that no one thinks about. (0:05)
Maybe they will give human rhythm to electronic dance music. Maybe they will make an engineer’s job easier. Or maybe they will just give the public new and interesting sounds. Brainwave technology appears to be re-thinking the way we make electronic music.
Eleanor Stanford, Columbia Radio News.