A composer inside every head

The encephalophone is an instrument that may be used in medical treatment. You play it with your thoughts.

Inventor Thomas Deuel has a studiolab in his house. It is part music studio and part laboratory, reflecting Deuel himself: he is a scientist specializing in neurology and also a composer. In the latter capacity he produces mainly avant-garde sound installations, always with help of science. Deuel has already recorded the traditional tattooing ritual practiced by the Kalinga tribe in the Philippines. He created music using a parachute packed with sensors and produced works with oysters that responded to the change of lighting in the room. It may sound beyond belief, but it really is true. Deuel is also a gifted multi-instrumentalist: he plays the trumpet, guitar, and piano.

His invention, the encephalophone, belongs to both the realms of science and the arts. It is on one hand a musical instrument and on the other a device designed to help people with neurological disorders, such as those who experienced a stroke or damage to the spinal cord.

“At first I wanted to invent a new musical instrument. I thought it would be a great fun, something interesting from a scientific as well as a musical point of view; however, in the course of project development I was learning more and more from the positive feedback and I started thinking: Well, I do have patients with disabilities… how can I use what I am doing for treatment purposes?” said Deuel at a meeting during the MIT Enterprise Forum.

Here’s how the encephalophone works, demonstrated by the inventor himself:

The encephalophone transforms alpha brain waves into musical notes. This is made possible by the activation or deactivation of the so-called mu rhythms inside the brain’s motor cortex (mu rhythms are a specific type of neuron activity) or brain wave rhythms in the occipital lobe. However, the technical stuff isn’t so important. It is enough to know that when you are connected to the electroencephalograph (EEG) you will be able to play a synthesizer linked to this device.

Deuel, who works for the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle, claims that playing the encephalophone is a piece of cake. Once connected to the apparatus, all you have to do is imagine, for example, you are lifting your left foot and the synth will produce a higher sound, while you can produce a lower sound by imagining you’re lifting your right brow. It’s that easy. Everything is done by our brain’s motor cortex.

“It is not especially complicated,” the scientist explained. “Anyone can learn to play the encephalophone. It’s like picking up any other instrument: you just need to go through the learning stage… The big thing is you are not moving, but then it is an unconventional instrument.”

Deuel is a Renaissance man. Here he talks about his unique oyster music:

The inventor tries to downplay the role of the encephalophone. However, you’ll still draw the conclusion that this is really something big. Just think about all the talented musicians who got injured in accidents and are now unable to play due to the limitations on their movement, or consider those who dream of playing music but a congenital disability stands in their way.

But these people don’t represent the only possible use of this instrument. It was also created for patients who do not have much to do with music, but for example suffer from motor neurone disease, also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The symptoms include paresis of the limbs, atrophy of subsequent muscle groups, tremors, and sometimes paralysis. The encephalophone may serve as an ideal tool in rehabilitation programs for these patients. Deuel believes that for such people, learning to create music with the use of different parts of the brain could be priceless. The technology is non-invasive and mobile.

Dr. Gyrus and the Electric Sulci (Deuel’s music project) played the Megapolis Audio Festival (photo Vimeo)

Deuel is not the first to come up with the idea of combining a musical instrument with a brain testing tool. In 1940 Dr. R. Furth, together with Dr. E.A. Bevers, invented an electroencephalophone, which was to be used to diagnose neurological diseases. Devices of this sort were even given their own name: quintephones, from the “quintessence.” In this case it is nothing tangible; rather, an idea, a thought. Just as aerophones (for example, saxophones) use air to produce sound, quintephones are not limited by any matter.

You play this instrument with a cap equipped with electrodes (photo by Thomas Deuel)

The encephalophone is currently at the testing stage; however, the work on it already looks promising. “At the moment we cannot show you Beethoven’s scores and hope you will be able to play it each time. However, you do have real control over the music and there is no accident in that,” comments Deuel. He elaborates on the vision of a future in which EEG devices are cheaper and smaller and the encephalophone may be purchased in any electronics store. The music from our heads could be transferred in real time to our smartphones or YouTube channels. Anyone could be a composer. The question is, should everyone be one?

If you cannot play any instrument, but you want to create music, and you lack the patience to wait for the encephalophone to hit the shelves, you can use the possibilities provided by music software linked to 3D Intel RealSense cameras. With this solution it is not enough just to think: you need to engage your body too. But you still do not have to actually touch an instrument. In fact, you do not need to touch anything: you simply make gestures with your hands in the air. By tracking them in tridimensional space, the Intel RealSense camera transfers information on location of your hands to a processor that will in turn translate it into the language of sound. Here’s a demonstration of how KAGURA software works:

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