Making Music with the Mind’s Brain Waves

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The encephalophone, an experimental hands-free musical instrument that uses brain waves to generate sounds, may help in the treatment of neurological disorders.

Reclining on a comfy chair, neurologist Thomas Deuel jams with a jazz band without lifting a finger. Wearing a blue cap covered with electrodes tracking his brain signals, he uses his mind to create music through a synthesizer.

Deuel’s mind-bending invention, the encephalophone, belongs in both realms of science and the arts. It’s a musical instrument as well as a biofeedback device designed to help people with neurological disorders, including patients who experienced a stroke or damage to the spinal cord.

As a gifted multi-instrument player of the trumpet, guitar and piano, Deuel studied jazz at the New England Conservatory. The encephalophone combines a love of music with his understanding of brain physiology to help patients with motor disabilities heal through the power of music.

“At first I wanted to invent a new musical instrument,” said Deuel, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, where he is the director of the Art + Brain Lab.

“However, in the course of project development, I started thinking: How can I use what I am doing for treatment purposes?”

Imaginary Air Guitar

The encephalophone uses the electrode cap to transform alpha brain waves into musical notes. Connected to an electroencephalogram (EEG), the encephalophone uses complex brain signal processing and digital music algorithms to record two kinds of signals to make music.

One signal type, posterior dominant rhythm (PDR), is produced by the brain’s visual cortex when users open and close their eyes to control the music. Mu rhythms, the second type of signal from the brain’s motor cortex, happen when users imagine making movements to control the music.

Deuel claims that playing the encephalophone takes very little thought. Once connected to the apparatus, all users have to do is imagine, for example, they are lifting the left foot and the synth will produce a higher sound. They may produce a lower sound by imagining they’re lifting the right eyebrow.

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