Music on the Brain

One of the most difficult tasks facing any composer is getting a musical idea from conception to realization. Once you compose something in your head,

One of the most difficult tasks facing any composer is getting a musical idea from conception to realization. Once you compose something in your head, you need to write it down in musical notation or play it on an instrument and record your performance into an audio recorder or MIDI sequencer. Then you can refine and expand the idea, develop an orchestration, and otherwise work toward a finished piece of music. But even with modern tools, preserving your inspiration can require years of training, which inhibits many aspiring composers from realizing their dreams.

Recent advances in brain imaging could help overcome this obstacle. Scanning technologies, such as positron-emission tomography (PET), reveal that auditory signals are processed in specific regions within the temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex (the outer surface of the brain, where most higher functions occur). The temporal lobes are just inside the skull, near the top of the ears. (Near the regions recognized in highly paid rock stars as "temperamental lobes.")

Experiments with musical stimuli indicate that melody is processed mostly in the right temporal lobe and meter is processed mostly in the left. Rhythm probably involves subcortical processing in a deeper, more primitive part of the brain, which might explain why it's difficult to resist dancing (or at least bobbing your head) to music with a strong groove.

Another interesting finding of this research is that the left hemisphere of the brain tends to dominate musical processing in trained musicians, whereas the right hemisphere dominates in untrained listeners. This makes sense when you consider that trained musicians can't avoid thinking analytically about any music they hear, while untrained listeners are more likely to simply enjoy the music. Naturally, the real story is much more complicated than this-many other parts of the brain are also involved in the complex relationship necessary to process music (or any other stimulus, for that matter)-but cognitive scientists are coming to understand the general patterns of neural activity that arise from musical perception.

In fact, it has been demonstrated that the same neural activity occurs when someone merely thinks of a musical phrase ("hears" music in their head). If the electromagnetic flux generated by this neural activity can be isolated and analyzed, it might be possible to actually hear a person's musical thoughts!

This is the theory behind the Mindophone, a remarkable device invented by Dr. Spanky N. R. Ganglia of Callosum Corp. US. In its current prototype form, the Mindophone consists of a headpiece (see Fig. 1) with very sensitive electromagnetic detectors embedded throughout its inner surface. The headpiece is connected to a computer that analyzes the signals from the detectors and converts them into audio signals that can be played through any normal sound system.

Initial experiments have been very promising. When radio personality Don Thalamus tried it, researchers immediately heard "If I Only Had a Brain" issuing from the speakers. Singer Ray Charles quickly conjured up "Georgia on My Mind" from his roots in the Cerebellum South. Other test subjects easily produced a meditative test chant that Dr. Ganglia developed based on the movie The Karate Kid: "axon, axoff, axon, axoff."

The potential applications of this technology are truly mindboggling. For one thing, you'll finally be able to hear yourself think. In addition, Dr. Ganglia is working on a synaptic syntax called M-Dopa (musical dopamine) that would act like an online neurotransmitter, thus allowing Mindophone signals to be streamed over the Internet in real time. Now all we need is some way to get the inevitable throngs of mental composers to think in tune!