Grace Leslie stands in front of a crowd, a flute perched at her lips. In many ways, the ingredients of this performance are nothing extraordinary: performer, audience, instrument … other than, perhaps, the odd-looking headband affixed to her head.
When she begins, the silvery sounds of the flute are joined by a wash of vaguely electronic tones. The result is ethereal and strange, moving between atonal and harmonious, unsettling and soothing.
What you’re hearing are Leslie’s brain waves. During this performance of “Vessels,” a 30-minute brain-body concert, she wears a special EEG (electroencephalogram) monitoring device that measures electrical activity from her brain. These brain waves are then sonified by means of an algorithm that imprints their spectrum onto a bank of recorded samples of flute and singing.
In other words, Leslie is playing two instruments: the flute and her own brain.
The Lab as a Venn Diagram
“We discover different kinds of ways to transform data with sound and transform sound with data.”
Interdisciplinary at its core, the Brain Music Lab is focused on the nexus between music, technology and neuroscience.
“We look at people experiencing music and study their brain waves,” said Leslie. “From there, we develop new ways of working with that data and then often transform it back into the performance or a new artistic piece.”
Typically, students begin with a broad scientific concept. For example: “What would we learn if we measured the brain waves of jazz performers during an improvisational set?”
At an ordinary lab, measuring that data may be the end result. However, the Brain Music Lab takes it a step further. Once those brain waves are measured and analyzed, the question becomes: “How do we transform what we’ve learned into a new artistic expression?” The result may be a visual art piece, a composition or even a new form of electronic instrument.
The lab works on the continuum of an art-science loop.
“We discover different kinds of ways to transform data with sound and transform sound with data,” said music composition student Jessie Lausé (MMus’23).
The lab residents come from a variety of disciplines, their interests overlapping like a Venn diagram — from music students seeking to create experimental compositions to engineering students interested in a more artistic expression of their work. The thing they have in common is a desire for interdisciplinary innovation.
“It’s super exciting for a student with an electrical engineering background to be able to apply the technical skills that they have to brain waves or a medical question or to a creative pursuit,” said Leslie. “I’m constantly astounded by the work that they’re doing. They surprise me every day.”
PhD candidate Thiago Roque (PhDCreatTechCogSciNeuroSci’27) is investigating the phenomenon of neural entrainment in musical settings to better understand social interaction and empathy.
His current research is centered on hyperscanning (a procedure that records activity in two brains at the same time) during a musical performance to better understand the neurological link between performers and audience, as well as between performers themselves.
“We are trying to measure the engagement and the connection between the audience and the musicians,” he said. “It’s this fundamentally different way of saying that musical communication is an interbody experience, and then measuring the brain waves that would result from that.
“The whole idea is to operationalize how two brains find synchrony while someone is playing music and the other one is listening.”
He hopes this set of research will help inform how we understand empathy — by watching how people interact with each other in nonverbal ways.
“I really like this idea of not needing to know how to play an instrument to engage in music.”
Lausé is focusing on creating experimental works using sound from “found objects” rather than traditional instruments. Elements of a piece might include pouring out a bucket of water, ripping up crisp sheets of paper or dropping floor tiles from a height of five feet. A recent piece featured Lausé peeling a butternut squash alongside a saxophone quartet.
“I’m interested in anything that makes a good sound,” said Lausé. “I was pursuing this idea that within an object is everything you need to play this piece of music. It has an intuitive nature.”
At a macro level, Lausé’s work centers on accessibility.
“I really like this idea of not needing to know how to play an instrument to engage in music,” they said. “I didn’t grow up thinking that I was going to be in classical music or in academia. That was never something that was an accessible thought to me growing up.”
Lausé hopes this work will appeal to people who may not traditionally be encouraged to pursue revolutionary ideas.
“I think a lot of what I want to do in my work is break some kind of barrier,” they said. “For me, it’s a matter of putting experimental art and process and creativity on display so that more people know it’s possible for them.”
An Interdisciplinary Community
For Leslie, interdisciplinary work has always been second nature. Raised by a physicist and a musician, she was encouraged from an early age to fuse her interests together. However, she’s found that the rest of the world tends to relegate skill sets to their own separate industries.
Leslie’s hope has been to create a lab that ushers traditionally disconnected fields into the same room. When she came across CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, it felt like the perfect fit.
“ATLAS is a truly, truly unique place,” said Leslie. “Experimental work is impossible without the support of others in other disciplines. And when you are able to build a little world to support that work, I think what comes out of it is very special.”
As the lab moves forward at CU, Leslie hopes it will become a place where more and more students and their work will find an expression.
Is it art? Is it science? At the Brain Music Lab, the answer is simply, “Yes.”