A Vision of the Future: Musical Delivery Systems in the Mid 21st Century

Jon Appleton
Department of Music
Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA

A paper presented at the public symposium devoted to Composition and Music Science arranged by The Royal College of Music and The Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, Sweden, October 28-30, 2004

Abstract: the author proposes a device that is capable of stimulating and activating those collections of neurons that represent our musical preferences.

Keywords: electro-acoustic music, music cognition, transcranial magnetic stimulation.


As a composer of electro-acoustic music my interest has been to create works which bridge the gap between traditional musical experience and those sonic events that evoke affective states. Aside from the compositions themselves, my scientific curiosity has led me to investigate and sometimes participate in the creation of technology that would open new musical opportunities for composers and listeners alike.

Perhaps the most successful of these investigations led to the development of the manufacture of a digital performance instrument called the Synclavier. The instrument came into general use because I was able to collaborate with a brilliant engineer and computer programmer. My original idea was to have an instrument with which one could give live performances of electro-acoustic music. After spending ten years composing and performing on this instrument three things became clear: (1) most composers of electro-acoustic music were not interested in using the instrument, (2) most listeners to electro-acoustic music couldn't comprehend how the instrument created the sounds they heard and consequently could care less if it was live or not, and (3) there was no market for such an instrument and my collaborators soon moved to modifying the system to meet the needs of the commercial music industry.

As I am a composer and neither a scientist nor a computer programmer, many of my ideas were abruptly discarded because I had neither understood the problem completely nor lacked the tools to investigate further. One such idea dealt with a technique to enable profoundly deaf people the experience of music (at least the melodic, harmonic and timbre components of music since the profoundly deaf already have a highly developed sense of rhythm). The medical research that led to cochlear implants was too crude to allow even the approximation of music even if it did improve speech comprehension.

Thus in the early 1980s I began thinking about how one might, through non-invasive techniques, stimulate the basilar membrane and the auditory nerve so as to approximate the experience of music. It seemed to me possible that one could modulate low-level microwave radiation with an audio signal which when placed in close proximity to the inner ear could provide the excitation we call sound and, by extension, music. Further research revealed that body parts such as the eyes, testes and brain are not able to rid themselves of the extra heat that microwave radiation causes and thus I abandoned the project.

Recently a bio-medical solution presented itself as method to enable profoundly deaf people the experience of music. A discovery was made by researchers at the Harvard Medical School of a protein deep in the inner ear that is the hair-cell transduction channel that is used by the brain to experience sound. "The protein, TRPA1 is located at the tips of the specialized cilia on hair cells of the inner ear. Scientists believe the protein forms pores that open and close in sync with sound waves, allowing ions to flow into cells and to transform the vibrations into electrical signals." (http://www.hms.harvard.edu/news/corey_TRP.MPG) Consequently one may expect protein replacement therapy to be a less dangerous technique than microwave radiation for expanding music cognition for those heretofore musically impaired.

In 1992 I observed that "as our civilization develops and evolves, an increasing tension can be observed between disciplines that lend themselves to scientific inquiry (such as acoustics) and those, like music, that seem to constantly evade satisfactory explanation." ("Machine Songs III: Music in the Service of Science – Science in the Service of Music,: Computer Music Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1992, p.17) This seems to me to be especially the case with electro-acoustic music for as Jean-Claude Risset has written, "analysts find it difficult to work without making reference to a score, thus electro-acoustic music tends to be forlorn by musicologists, which is bad for its diffusion and its insertion into the musical patrimony." (from unpublished remarks to the Bourges Academy, 1997). Composers such as Denis Smalley have tried to assist our musicologist colleagues through the creation of impressive theoretical tools for the analysis and description of electro-acoustic music but I fear without much success.

Recently I have begun to think that electro-acoustic music remains in an artistic ghetto because one's conception of what music is or should be becomes fixed rather early in life. Those layman who take the time to listen to more than a few seconds of electro-acoustic will agree that the compositions are examples of organized and even evocative sound but fail to meet their criteria for music.

Lars-Gunnar Bodin has tried to put to rest this aesthetic dilemma by suggesting that electro-acoustic music is not music at all but rather sound art. Physiological evidence may prove him correct as some fMRI studies show that sound and musical memories may appear in different parts of the brain. Does this matter to those of who consider all manifestations of sound as proto-musical material? While I previously accepted without question Jamshed Bharucha and others conclusion that music was the benign artifact of our powers of speech and hearing, some neurosurgeons suspect that music is a uniquely human and quite separable activity from sound itself - not merely a combination of stored auditory components.

With the above as background, the following ideas perforce become speculative but with substantial corroboration by colleagues who study cognition, psychiatry and neurology. It is my belief that human beings are able to access at will the conglomeration of neurons in our brain that represent sound, musical objects and musical memories. Like other uncovered memories, some sonic-musical materials lays buried because it is accessed infrequently or due to psychologically protective mechanisms that prevent its easy retrieval.

But imagine for a moment that we could catalog these collections of neurons. There would be voices, sounds from the kitchens and playgrounds of our childhood, sonic material that soothes or frightens us, and above all music that is important to us for both intellectual and emotional reasons. Aspects of sound might be found in both their musical and non-musical manifestations. If vivid memories are characterized by the depth of repetitive imprinting (like the shelf-life of an audio CD) then those sonic-musical events nearest to immediate recall will be the most redundant in our imaginary catalog. What especially interests me is what characterizes musical preference? Obviously it is the not simply the most oft repeated stimuli. I suspect it is the multiple appearances of specific music in our brain at different locations. In other words, one's preferred music will appear in the following categories in our catalog: interval combinations, melodic sequences, timbre identity, motor response, physical location, individuals with whom we heard the music and for many, any text associated with the music. These seem to me among the more likely categories and for each individual there is most likely an idiosyncratic collection.

What I would like to propose is the creation of a cranial cap - a music cap - that is capable of stimulating and activating those collections of neurons that represent our musical preferences. And for those of us whose preferences include electro-acoustic music, this will include the simultaneous stimulation and activation of purely sonic memories.

The possible extension of cochlear implant technology and the probing of the brain by neurosurgeons who need to remove tumors brought me to this idea. The latter need to know how to avoid those areas adjoining the tumor so as to avoid damage to the areas of the brain that control motor control, speech, etc. Parenthetically, the neurosurgeons are less concerned about our powers of hearing and smell and that is unfortunately an indication of our importance as musicians to the field of medicine.

Until now my conception of how the "music cap" might work was stymied by the necessary invasive procedures that might required. Nevertheless, as early as 1985, "researchers at the University of Sheffield found that magnetic fields could activate brain cells" without doing harm. (http://www/erowid.org/spirit/devices/devices_article1.shtml) A recently developed application called transcranial magnetic stimulation has opened up a potentially powerful technique for the "musical thinking cap." In this application a "coil generates magnetic field impulses which stimulate underlying nerve cells in a focused volume. By measuring responses to the stimulations and tracking the position of the coil relative to the MR scan we generate functional maps of the brain in a low-cost, non-invasive, and accurate manner. LED's placed on the face…are used to track the position of the patient during the procedure, so that the patient's head does not have to be fixed." (http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/medical-vision/surgery/tms.html) In other words, like the Sony Walkman or Apple iPod, this device could be portable.

The original medical experiments with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) demonstrated that it was possible to 'prevent people from seeing a visual stimulus or make it hard for them to speak. Some of the first studies showed that applying TMS to the brain's temporal lobe altered the mood of the volunteers and, depending on location, produced euphoric happiness or apathy and sadness. Consequently, medical applications of TMS have been largely confined to treating conditions as varied as depression, epilepsy and stuttering.' (http://www/erowid.org/spirit/devices/devices_article1.shtml)

Historically, scientific discoveries like TMS give rise to hyperbole and exaggerated claims for future applications. For example, Helen Briggs of BBC News Online writes:

Australian scientists say they have created a "thinking cap" that will stimulate creative powers. The invention raises the possibility of being able to unlock one's inner genius by reawakening dormant parts of the brain. It is based on the idea that we all have the sorts of extraordinary abilities usually associated with savants.
According to scientists at the Centre for the Mind in Sydney, these hidden talents can be stimulated using magnetism. Professor Allan Snyder and colleague Elaine Mulcahy say tests on 17 volunteers show their device can improve drawing skills within 15 minutes.
Professor Steve Williams, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, said "This shock finding that everyone might possess unconscious skills that can be 'switched on' with magnetic stimulation will challenge many of our conventional views regarding creativity."
The inspiration for the device comes from savant syndrome, a condition portrayed in the Hollywood film Rain Man. Savants are extraordinarily gifted. They may have amazing memories or excel at maths, music or art. But they also have developmental disorders such as autism. One theory behind savant syndrome is that the right side of the brain overcompensates for damage to the left hemisphere.
David Potter of the National Autistic Society, a UK charity, said the research was fascinating. "Some scientists believe that the essence of creativity is not a state of mind but an activity," he told BBC News Online.

Not wanting to participate in the blatant and sensational promotion of a "music cap," I consulted several medical authorities at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, among them the Section Chief of Neurosurgery, David W. Roberts, M.D. Because he suspects that music itself is isolatable in the brain, he believes that my idea is worthy of further investigation.

The way in which I imagine the "music cap" would work is as follows: When specific musical or sonic memories and preferences are probed, the response, according to its intensity, is recorded in a database. (How one separates this data from its non-musical corresponding memories is difficult for me to imagine unless it is done by specific location in the brain.) Once an individual's sonic-music database is available, a computer program sorts it by a measure of preference provided by the subject. The process is then reversed to provide the subject with the music they most want to hear.

The English expression "many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip" means that everything is uncertain until you possess it. Likewise, there are many slips 'twixt the cap and the tip (the tips of the specialized cilia on hair cells of the inner ear). Yet it is my hope that those more qualified than I will pursue this idea.