Scientists figured out a way to let you compose music using just your brain

Scientists figured out a way to let you compose music using just your brain
It won’t sound quite like a piano.
Source: Pawel Maryanov/Flickr
It won’t sound quite like a piano.
Source: Pawel Maryanov/Flickr

If you enjoy music but haven’t managed to master an instrument yet, we may have a solution for you: an encephalophone, a device that turns brain signals into sounds.

It’s not just about jamming away. The encephalophone may be a helpful tool for people with brain or movement limitations, according to creator Thomas Deuel, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington.

How it works

Deuel puts a cap with electrodes on the individual’s head. The user then thinks about clenching his or her right fist, which creates a low note — no actual muscle movement required. Thinking about unclenching the fist creates a high note. (A second playing method controls the device by opening and closing the user’s eyes.)

The encephalophone checks into the brain signals created by those thoughts every half second or so and converts them into one of eight notes within a scale. The encephalophone has even been played in concert.

Source: Thomas Deuel/Vimeo

Deuel wanted to confirm users were actually controlling the system, so in a paper published in April, he and his colleagues tested whether users could figure out how to match a specific note using the machine. They did OK, even with just five minutes of training: Subjects matched the note roughly 60% of the time. If they’d just been producing random notes, they would have matched just 20% of the time.

What’s next

That paper was based on experiments with 15 healthy volunteer students. But in the long term, Deuel wants to bring the technology to the types of patients he sees during his work as a neuropathologist. In an email to Mic, Deuel said he’s expecting to receive permission within the next few days to start using the encephalophone as a way of bringing music therapy to patients with motor disabilities.

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Meghan Bartels

Meghan Bartels is a science journalist based in New York City.

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