Making music with brain waves

Imagine that you have been singing all your life.  You’re not a professional, but you sing with the elementary school students in your fifth-grade class, you conduct a church choir, and you’re good.  You have a nice voice, you can sing in tune and finding the right pitch is never a problem.  Suddenly one day, everything changes.  You can no longer find the correct pitches for a familiar song.  You can hear them in your mind, and you can hear that you are singing not only out of tune, but hitting totally wrong notes – but you can’t fix it.  You’re bewildered about what’s happening, and panic sets in.

That was the situation for fifth-grade teacher Margaret Haney, who thought she must have had a stroke.  But a visit to the ER determined that she had not suffered a stroke.  Brain scans showed that she was suffering from amusia, a defect in processing pitch.

Amusia is most commonly called tone deafness, but it can affect rhythm or the emotional processing of music as well.  Although lots of people cheerily pronounce themselves to be tone deaf so don’t expect them to join in singing Happy Birthday (or sometimes they do sing when those around them wish they wouldn’t), real amusia affects less than 4% of the population.  You can be born with it (congenital amusia), or it can occur from brain damage (acquired).  While it can often happen as the result of a stroke and much more rarely as a migraine aura (see Oliver Sacks’ description in his book Musicophilia), the amusia in Haney’s case was due to a viral encephalitis infection in just one tiny portion of her brain, the area that processes pitch.

Rather than writing about it, I am directing you to the video below to see the fascinating story of Haney, neurologist Dr. Thomas Deuel at the University of Washington, and the encephalophone, an instrument Deuel used to try to help restore Haney’s singing ability.  (Alert:  the white noise that begins at around 32 seconds is part of the original video.  It lasts about 8 seconds.)

Before you watch, you may want to reflect on a couple of things.

The encephalophone uses electroencephalography (EEG), a noninvasive technique for measuring electrical activity in the brain.   Referred to in many news stories as Deuel’s invention, it isn’t new.  Deuel holds a patent on his particular version, which uses EEG motor imagery to control a synthesized keyboard.  But the electroencephalophone was actually invented in the 1940s at the University of Edinburgh – obviously not a digital version at that time.  (See the New York Times article from 1943.)

While electroencephalography was originally used as a diagnostic tool for physicians and has become important for diagnosing such conditions as epilepsy, seizures, head injuries, and brain tumors, composers have also been inspired by the technology.  Alvin Lucier, in Music for Solo Performer (1965), amplified his own brain waves.  Richard Teitelbaum began exploring the use of brain waves to control music in the mid 60s and wrote In Tune in 1967.  And David Rosenboom’s On Being Invisible (1972) allows performers to make music using brain waves.

What I find fascinating about this story is that Haney’s encephalitis attacked only one small portion of her brain ( antiviral medication was used to halt the spread of the infection), and that portion is dedicated to just one thing – generating musical pitch.   Nothing was affected other than her ability to sing.  Her speech and speech inflection remained fine.   That seems to reinforce the idea, as researchers are increasingly discovering, that there are some separate networks or areas in the brain devoted to music and not used for anything else.  We may, in fact, be hardwired for music as we are for language.