Friday, January 2, 2009

Make Music, Boost Brain

David Bradley's Sciencebase - Science Blog
TED - ideas worth spreading
Tod Machover and Dan Ellsey


David Bradley is a science writer who has a website called Sciencebase. On May 23, 2008 he wrote a piece about his own experiences with a lifetime of guitar playing and his recent foray into choral singing. He claims to have had problems all his life with remembering names but after less than a year of choral singing, he suddenly finds he is much more able to easily retain this kind of information. He feels that the brain activity required to read music, as opposed to the way he would normally play guitar mostly by ear, has resulted in this new skill. Others who have commented on his observations feel similarly.

Bradley included the YouTube piece from TED at the end of his column.

Tod Machover is a big-haired rock musician-looking type who starts by saying that music means a lot to us but it is even more powerful if you don't just listen to it but you make it yourself.

His MIT music media lab is involved with "active music". He believes that everyone in the world has the ability to make music. He started by creating "hyper instruments" for expert musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Peter Gabriel. These are instruments that "know" how they are being played.

Machover's team created "Brain Opera", an interactive composition piece performed with a series of instruments that everyone can play. This toured worldwide and is now permanently housed in Vienna. This concept preceded the creation in his lab of the widely popular "Guitar Hero".

He believes that music is transformative, that it can change your life.

"Toy Symphony" is a composition and performance vehicle for children. It includes easy instruments children can make music on right away. For example, there are squeezy shapers that make music by measuring the electricity in your fingers. The hope is that this will propel kids to want to keep learning about how to create music.

"Hyperscore" is software that uses lines and colours to make quite sophisticated music. By pressing a button, the lines, colours and shapes can be transformed into a traditional musical score.

Current work at the Media Lab is on music, mind and health. Knowing that music is so useful in working with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients, stroke victims and others, the people at the Media Lab are working on ways to build activities which will help to better people's health. Machover and the Media Lab are interested in the "personal instrument" to allow any individual, regardless of their ability or challenge, to be able to create their own personal music.

In the video, a 34-year old man with cerebral palsy named Dan Ellsey comes onstage in a wheelchair. Unable to speak on his own, through the use of a brain scan device, his thoughts are translated through a computer generated speaking voice. Using his own "personal instrument" Ellsey is not only able to compose but perform his own music. A PHD student from the lab explains how their newly adapted technologies have allowed for the unique creative expression of the individual.

At the end of the video, Dan Ellsey performs his compostion "My Eagle Song" created with "Hyperscore" and using computer generated graphics that reflect the man's expressive movement.


In response to what David Bradley wrote about his newfound ability to retain detailed information, like names, I can only add that I have always been quite good at remembering names, dates and phone numbers. I wonder if the fact that I started formal music lessons as a child and have been playing or singing every since has had some effect on my ability to retain such information.

I tend to agree with the narrator of the YouTube posting. I think that music can be life altering. Performing is addictive. For me, having had a taste of it in my youth, it has been something I have wanted to do ever since. I also sense that performing music is contributing to my daughter becoming a poised, outgoing and capable individual.

Such creativity as has been exemplified in the work of the MIT's Media Lab is extremely inspiring. The creators, having the philosophy that we all need to be able to make music, have continuously found novel ways to make this happen for a broad spectrum of ordinary people. Having played Rock Band with the Wii this Christmas with non-musician family members was a fun and creative musical experience for all of us, for example. It occurred to me that it might not be a huge step for my niece who is extremely expert at Guitar Hero, to become interested in taking up guitar playing for real.

The performance by Ellsey of his composition was truly remarkable and for me, very moving. To think that this man, otherwise mute in his chair, is able to communicate and express his musicianship through his thought processes and the small movements that his body allows, is just a wonderful thing. I am so glad I located this video. Check it out.

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