Music by VICE

Hear a Chaotic Orchestra Made from Brainwaves

Programmer and visual artist Brian Foo translated EEG brainwave data into music to create "Rhapsody in Grey."

by Becky Chung
Mar 2 2015, 10:15pm

GIF by Becky Chung

When the brain seizes, its electrical activity ramps up dramatically. For a musical experiment, programmer and visual artist Brian Foo translated the EEG brainwave data of an anonymous female pediatric patient with epilepsy into a soundscape, creating an auditory journey through a seizure. “I have always had a personal fascination with what goes on in the brain, our most complex and distinguishing organ,” he explains in a blog post about his process. “I was interested in using music to produce empathy between two people, where the listener can ‘experience’ what might be going on in someone else's brain.

Foo chose the rhapsody, a free-form, episodic type of composition as his foundational structure, because it could house an improvisational translation of neural activity. Different variables in the EEG data mapped the intensity and flow of the piece. He decided, for example, that more singers and louder instruments would be added when brainwaves with higher amplitudes appeared, string instruments would raise their pitches during moments of higher frequencies, and percussion would chime in when wave patterns happened simultaneously over different regions of the brain.

“I decided to build my sounds around human voice since this is a very human subject,” he exlpains. To do this, he turned to phantom words, or sounds that seem to resemble real words and phrases—but actually don’t exist. He clipped vocal samples of sung words from "Hide And Seek" by Imogen Heap and juxtaposed them with double bass samples from the free Philharmonia sound sample library and percussion samples from "Reeling The Liars In," "A Little God In My Hands," and "Still A Child" by Swans. Inputting these audio segments and EEG data into a computer program algorithmically generated his final composition, “Rhapsody in Grey.”

Foo adds a disclaimer to his work, saying, that he does not have the education to diagnose a seizure based on EEG data. Thus his work should not be construed as scientific research, but experienced instead as a creative interpretation. To be as transparent as possible, Foo has detailed his step-by-step process and open-sourced all of his code in order to encourages the remixing, reinterpretation, and even correction of his work. 

"Rhapsody in Grey" is the second part of Foo's ongoing “Data Driven DJ,” series, which sees the artist parsing data through the lens of music. His first track turned income inequality on the NYC subway's 2 Train into a pulsing tune played by horns, bongos and xylophones. Foo will continue launching the series throughout the year, but you can already pre-order the digital album now.


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