Mental music

Percussionists jam without their hands

By | March 28, 2008

With electrode-studded headbands strapped to their scalps, three percussionists banged out a cacophony of sound and rhythm at a performance/neuroscience experiment entitled, "Trio for percussion and brain waves" last Monday (Mar 24) in New York City. But this performance was a first for the three musicians involved: none of them even touched their instruments.
As a rapt audience watched, sounds issued from three laptops connected to the drummers by Bluetooth technology. The musicians' brainwaves traveled through the air, triggering tones from the computers before leaping to life on the 12-foot-high screen hanging behind them. The performance was part of an experiment designed by David Sulzer, Columbia University neuroscientist. It demonstrated Sulzer's idea that thinking about an action could stimulate the brain in much the same way as actually carrying it out. "It's the first time we've shown this [experiment] in public," said Sulzer, who's also known as Dave Soldier the prolific composer who has published 13 studio albums since 1988. When the music was playing, Sulzer sat alone, his eyes closed and his body stilled by intense concentration. Sulzer recently released albums of music played by elephant orchestras and demonstrated his neuron-induced music at the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Another portion of Sulzer's public experiment, which was part of "BRAINWAVE: The NeuroScience of the Groove" held at the City University of New York, was to have the musicians play their drums normally while the real-time peaks and valleys of their brain activity flashed on the screen behind them.
Each time the musicians beat their instruments, a series of chemical reactions took place in their brains: sodium ions flooded into their neurons while potassium ions coursed out, creating about -70mV of voltage and sharp spikes in their brainwave readouts, just like when they were producing music with their thoughts alone. Occasionally, though, the waves waned into almost a straight line; an interruption in the transmission process. "It could probably be caused by sweat," said Sulzer. The musicians' brainwaves also spiked when they sat on their hands to keep them still while thinking about music. Although some minor movements such as raising an eyebrow could also have triggered spikes, Sulzer and his Columbia colleague, John Krakauer, believed that further experiments would help them approach the truth.
"I think for the next step, we'll try to keep their hands completely still instead of just letting them sit on their hands, though there will probably still be spikes," said Krakauer, co-director of the Motor Performance Laboratory at Columbia University. When one of the three musicians started a mental music piece and the other two tried to accompany it, the brainwaves of the three synced up intermittently. "That was because they constantly needed to catch up with each other," said Sulzer. For Barry Olsen and Valerie Dee Naranjo, two of the participating percussionists, playing their music while wearing electrodes was a unique experience. "This is our first time [participating in this experiment]," said Olsen, who has been playing the kuar, a type of West African drum, for 20 years. Dee Naranjo, Olsen's wife and a devoted gyil player and singer, got the couple the gig through her long friendship with Sulzer. "We'll definitely perform with them again," said Olsen. "It's fun, isn't it?" "BRAINWAVE: The NeuroScience of the Groove" was presented by Science & the Arts at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. For more programs about brainwaves, check out Jessie Jiang


Avatar of: a klein

a klein

Posts: 2

March 28, 2008

Jessie,\nI think you really captured the spirit of the event. It was fun, experimental and the audience learned something new. That's our Science & the Arts mission; to engage the public's interest in science through the arts.\nPlease check out our future events and consider attending. I recommend the dialogue on April 7 between Princeton microbiologist Bonnie Bassler and choreographer Liz Lerman, who collaborated on a new dance/theatre piece about genetic research.\n\nThanks.\nAdrienne Klein\nco-Director, Science & the Arts\nCUNY Graduate Center
Avatar of: Stephen Dolle

Stephen Dolle

Posts: 16

March 29, 2008

Very interesting findings. I'd be curious which delivery system is more accurate, signaling from the brain as above, or from the body (if electrodes were fastened to it).\n\nThis study seems to follow other published studies where participants similated everyday tasks through "thinking" through the actions in them, or generally "visualization."\n\nI play and research the brain/body's role in percussion, in cognition, sensory processing, and voluntary movement. I find it interesting how it is difficult to "speak" while playing, esp. hand percussion, suggesting percussion involves many of the same processes as language.

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