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New Brain Machine Improves Musical Creativity

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Issue: 7 Section: Arts Topics: music, technology

September 12, 2003

New Brain Machine Improves Musical Creativity

by Matt Brennan

Image: Ftrain.com
Yes, you read the headline correctly, and no, I can't believe it either, but apparently scientists have invented a brain machine that dramatically enhances musical performance, thus paving the way for a new race of highly skilled super-musicians. According to the BBC, "the system - called neurofeedback - trains musicians to clear their minds and produce more creative brain waves. Research, to be published in the journal Neuroreport, indicates the technique helps musicians to improve by an average of 17% - the equivalent of one grade or class of honours. Some improved by as much as 50%."

The brain machine was tested on 97 students at the Royal College of Music in London, UK, and the percentage scores refer to examinations conducted by professional adjudicators. Anyone who has ever taken piano lessons as a child and gone through the trials of Royal Conservatory exams will understand that a 17% grade boost represents an incredible increase in musical proficiency (enough to send even the crankiest of teachers into fits of joy). But the student wouldn't be able to take the credit - thank the brain machine instead.

Most musicians feel that their best performances are the ones where the music just pours out naturally, and such moments of effortless vitality are usually rooted in a clear state of mind. Teachers will try to describe this state of awareness to students, but it's very difficult to put such a thing into words. As it turns out, its not so difficult to put it on a video screen.

The brain activity of a healthy human being can be understood as a collection of brain waves which scientists have learned to identify and isolate. With no musical instruments in sight, the technique consists of attaching sensors to your scalp so the machine can identify three main patterns - dubbed the alpha, beta, and theta waves - and display your own brain waves on a video screen in front of you. From there, as if playing a video game controlled by her mind, a musician can learn to concentrate and hone in on certain brain waves while the machine happily chimes a bell as she successfully learns to isolate one from the other. By teaching patients to increase their theta wave activity, scientists at Imperial College London and Charing Cross Hospital have effectively used the machine to help patients with epilepsy, alcoholism, attention deficit and post-traumatic stress disorders. The new development is that scientists have discovered that increased theta wave activity also enhances performance skills including musical understanding, imagination, and communication with the audience.

And so it is that machines have become far more effective than traditional human teachers in helping us to clear our minds and enhance our creative side. If such technology manages to spread beyond the limits of the experiment and grow in availability it will surely provoke no end of debate between the technophiles and luddites of the arts community. Since it so dramatically boosts performance skills, should musicians who use the machine be banned from competition with those who never had a chance to get hooked up? And from a philosophical standpoint, will this discovery come to be seen as the moment when all of our creative impulses were reduced to waves on a screen, shattering the mystery of the muse and sucking the wonder out of grace and inspiration?

I hope not. I can envision professional musicians who might chastise students for using such a machine, but what I cannot see is a good reason for their scorn. In its time, the invention of the metronome was no doubt met with similar resistance based on similar, unfounded reasons. The machine is not a performance-enhancing drug; it is a teaching tool. Its availability is prohibitive, of course, but so are the costs of tuition and of owning a professional musical instrument. Nor does the machine eliminate the need for practice; instead, if the technology becomes more widely available, it will simply raise expected performance standards for the next generation of musicians.

The philosophical implications may be another source for apprehension, but those who dismiss the discovery are probably the same people who want to cling to the notion of creative talent as being reserved for a chosen few, something you have to be anointed with at birth. But such views are as ignorant as they are selfish - musical talent is something that can be developed, and in a few cases, revealed dramatically by a special teacher. Perhaps this technology will be able to open up creative potential in those who were discouraged from pursuing music but have always secretly wished to be able to strum a chord. Which has to be a good thing.

Matt Brennan is studying media and culture at Stirling University.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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