EEG (electroencephalography), is a hardware technique long-used to diagnose and study epilepsy, sleep disorders, and brain death. Only recently, however, has it expanded into the prosumer realm; within the past decade companies including Emotiv, Neurosky, and iWinks (who we have an upcoming documentary on their EEG-based exploration of lucid dreaming) have honed in on the usability and accessibility of the technology, creating and distributing consumer-friendly prototypes like lightweight skeletal headbands and even cat ear EEGs. Pushed beyond the medical world, this rise in these brain-wave measuring devices coincides perfectly oncoming wearable revolution, and for artists, EEG technology has become a new medium; a tool for realizing near-perfect translations of creative ideas, and to observe creativity in action, straight off the dome.
Before it becomes a realized idea or product, creativity itself moves through several different modes. Most simply explained, it begins with a thought—what some might call a “spark” of insight—that gets translated onto a fixed medium which comes to occupy its final form. With EEG, however, wherein the brain’s electrical activity is measured through electrodes placed on the scalp, creators can now bypass a critical step in the creative process: all you have to do is "think" an idea into being, and even before a string is plucked or a stroke is painted, your creativity can be measured and observed.
Of all available media, music has provided the most perfect experimenting ground for EEG artists. Yearning to get even closer to the genesis of their ideas, their internal, biological sources of inspiration, musicians have yearned for this technology for years; one needs only to watch and listen to the improvisational performance of jazz musicians to understand on-the-spot melodic inventions as, perhaps, the best example of what boundless, pure creativity looks and sounds like. With EEG technology, however, anyone can now get even closer to witnessing the creative process, to envisioning churning artistic impulses without the uses of hands, mouths—one needs only the active brain.
With that in mind, here are ten examples of musicians who have experimented with EEG technology to translate their brainwaves and imaginative impulses into sonic soundscapes. Below, watch and listen to the weird worlds of music inside the human brain:
1. Lisa Park's Eunoia
The title of Lisa Park’s art performance, Eunoia, means “beautiful thought” in Greek. Wearing a NeuroSky EEG headset, she sat encircled by dishes of water, each independently representing a different emotion. Her position in the center of it all, was thus place where she attempted to symbolize infinite unity, and to reach an enlightened stage during her meditative performance. Her brainwaves were translated into sound and visuals (the vibrating water on the dishes).
2. Alvin Lucier's "Music For Solo Performer"
Alvin Lucier, an American composer, is lauded for his experiments in the sonic world, creating installations and experimental music exploring the physicality of sound. He was one of the very first musicians to use brainwaves in work. In his 1965 piece “Music for Solo Performer,” he used EEG electrodes to detect brain’s alpha waves during the course of a meditation, and the waves vibrated percussion instruments around the space.
3. Masaki Batoh's Brain Pulse Music
Japanese experimental musician Masaki Batoh created his own instrument called the Brain Pulse Music Machine, a marrying of an otherworldly EEG headset, a motherboard and some killer goggles. Brain waves were translated into radio waves and then outputted as sound. His LP/CD Brain Pulse Music includes two BPM machine recordings. The rest of his record is haunting sound meditations, created with traditional Japanese instruments, inspired by the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011.
4. Eduardo Miranda's Activating Memory
Eduardo Miranda, a self-described “composer working at the crossroads of music and science,” has been experimenting with the role computers and brain wave technology can have in creating beautiful music. His most recent experiment, Activating Memory was a performance by a Brain Computer Music Interface (BCMI) quartet teamed with a string quartet. The BCMI quartet wore caps with electrodes that measured their neural impulses, and these impulses wrote the score for the string quartet in real-time.
5. Mats Sivertsen's subConch
The subConch was an interactive art installation by Mats Sivertsen where users sat in front of white conch-shaped speaker and listened to the sound of their desires. A woman’s voice prompted, “Relax. Close your eyes. I want you to think of something you really really want. Something you desire deep down. Something you long for, and the EEG headset would take the user’s electrical impulses, and amplify the sound and intensity.
6. The MiND Ensemble
The MiND Ensemble is a new media performance group dedicated to exploring the connections between mind, machine and music. They believe neurofeedback fundamentally shifts the paradigm of the creative process—by bypassing of the need for a fixed medium to reflect the thought process. In their premiere performance—with diverse segments from a brain-powered rendition of Ave Maria and a band backed by neurofeedback noise—they wanted to further explore the question: “How can we optimize interaction within a completely intangible instrument?”
7. Odd Division's Conductar
In Asheville, North Carolina earlier this year, festivalgoers at Moogfest could write the “music” of the streets by wearing a NeuroSky brainwave sensor and connected to the Conductar app (which we covered previously) in an immersive installation designed by Odd Division. The data of a sensor wearer’s brain electrical activity would help to render an animated alternate reality, knitting together their personal audio and visual landscape.
8. Artlab's Music + Mind
At Artlab’s “Music + Mind” neuroscience infused live-music showcase, singer Lora Faye and jazz drummer Wiliam Hooker demonstrated how the sound of neurons firing could add intricate layers to a piece of music.
9. :vtol:'s Turbo-Gusli
Dmitry Morozov, aka ::vtol::, takes the traditional Russian folk multi-stringed instrument, an ancestor of the lyre, and ramps it up to “turbo” status. The robotized instrument can play itself. And in another version, he can also program it to play according to his brain waves measured by his EEG headset.
10. Chris Chafe and Josef Prvizi Turning Seizures Into Music
Musical research professor and sound artist Chris Chafe and neurologist Josef Parvizi joined heads to translate brain activity from seizure patients into musical composition. They were amazed to find, not only a fascinating piece of music, but also the clearly outlined transitions of the three stages of a seizure: from calm resting state to chaotic cadence of the seizure, and finally an easing into a recovery phase. If they could find a way to listen to the activity in real time or a “brain stethoscope” as they call it, they could dramatically impact the lives of caregivers for people with epilepsy. It’s currently in the works.
This is, of course, only a small list of the sonic artworks created using EEGs. Did we miss any other awesome projects? Let us know in the comments below! And stay tuned for an upcoming documentary about iWinks—a start-up that's using EEG technology in the wearable tech field to experiment with lucid dreaming.