When professor David Sulzer isn’t teaching clinical neurology, pharmacology, and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, he’s making music. As a composer, he’s been able to combine his interests in science and art through the Brainwave Music Project.
“It’s more educational than it is basic research,” Sulzer said. Collaborating with Brad Garton, the director of Computer Music Center, Sulzer uses a computer 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.”
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.
Meant to be “fun for the public,” the project is “a way for the audience to learn something about how the nervous system functions,” Sulzer said.
The inspiration came when the City University of New York asked Sulzer to give a talk on music and the brain in 2008. The subject was “groove,” a term used in R&B and soul music used to denote “knowing where the beat is.” The brain would need groove, for example, in order to know how to dance.
“So they asked me to give a talk on it, and I realized that we didn’t exactly know [how] the central nervous system of the brain practices groove,” he said.
According to Sulzer, nobody knows the exact connection between the brain and its metronome function, but scientists can measure this function using 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.”
“You have to really play with the data to be able to see it very well,” he said.
Sulzer also found that volition played a role in the Brainwave Music Project. For example, if he willed his arm to move and had a computer that could measure that brainwave, then it could play the drum for him.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Although Sulzer doesn’t find this music particularly beautiful, he acknowledged that it could be an appropriate tool for DJs. “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.”
Performing under the moniker of Dave Soldier, Sulzer also founded the Soldier String Quartet and co-founded the Thai Elephant Orchestra—an orchestra of elephants in Lampang, Northern Thailand.
Sulzer’s own research focuses on neurophysiology. “I don’t actually do much research on brainwaves per se. I’m more working on the changes that occur in synapses. Brainwaves come from thousands to millions of synapses working in patterns. And I’m more working on smaller numbers of synapses.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that David Sulzer is an associate professor, rather than a full-time professor. Spectator regrets the error.