Bathroom singers, your dreams of becoming a real singer might soon be just a headset away.
- Musicians typically need to practice for months if not years before they can hope for a breakthrough performance.
- From headphones that help you learn music faster to Elon Musk’s dream of streaming music directly into your brain, neurotech is changing that traditional paradigm.
“Five beats a day for three summers.” Ah, yes, the unforgettable bar from Kanye West’s 2004 single “Spaceship” lets it be known why “the kid that made that deserves that Maybach.” Well, 22 Grammy wins later, it’s fair to say he made his point.
As exciting as it sounds to lock yourself indoors during the warmest season of the year, innovations in neuroscience are inspiring tech that could cut three summers of preparation for musicians into one while also hastening the speed at which artists can get music to their fans.
Berklee College of Music and neurotech firm Halo Neuroscience launched headphones in 2019 that are helping students learn new musical skills faster and practice more efficiently while also improving their creativity. Students have already reported benefits. Swedish company Flow Neuroscience has since acquired Halo and is operating its technology.
Paris-based NextMind has developed a real-time brain computer interface called Dev Kit that reads your brain’s response to what you’re looking at, and then does what your mind asks the machine to do. As its promotion video shows, it could allow a DJ to control the EQ level with her mind, allowing her hands to stay free for the turntable. And billionaire Elon Musk has promised that his company Neuralink will develop a chip that could stream music directly to a listener’s brain, potentially revolutionizing access to songs in the future.
It’s only right that we’re now starting to study [music] from a neuroscience perspective because it can teach us so much about the brain.
Thomas Deuel, neurologist, University of Washington
The best part? This bond between neuroscience and music isn’t a one-way street: Scientists believe that their symphony can help decode mysteries of the mind too.
“It’s only right that we’re now starting to study [music] from a neuroscience perspective because it can teach us so much about the brain,” says Thomas Deuel, a neurologist and neurophysiologist at the University of Washington. Deuel’s a musician who still plays jazz, trumpet and guitar. “Even if you don’t think you’re that good at music, it’s wired into our brains,” he says.
To be sure, neurology’s interest in music isn’t totally new. In 2003, scientists tracked how people with neurological damage performed on music-related tasks. Since then, scientists have found that musicians have more refined motor skills than non-musicians and better understand the parts of the brain that go into reading and playing music. In parallel, neuroscience has focused more and more on the stimulation of the brain using electric currents.
The most popular way to go about brain stimulation is through transcranial magnetic stimulation, a technique that uses very small currents to manipulate the brain’s rhythms and control the cognitive processes associated with memory and attention. Deuel explains that it’s like a standard battery with opposing charges: “You just put a positive on one part of the brain and a negative on the other part of the brain. You’re changing the electrical transmission of neurons,” he says.
NextMind’s Dev Kit and Musk’s Neuralink both employ different technology that’s also beneficial to artists. Dev Kit’s headgear translates brain activity into real-world actions, potentially allowing a musician a chance to perform multiple tasks at the same time. What more does a pianist need but more hands?
“We’re not stimulating, we’re decoding activity from the cortex of the brain,” Sid Kouider, the CEO of NextMind, tells me. “Our biggest achievement is that you have a real-time close look with any digital interface and you can actually see your brain in action.”
Neuralink’s approach would require a physical incision to implant a chip in your brain. But it could prove a game-changer for artists. Instead of worrying about streaming platforms, they could go the direct-to-consumer route in a whole new way.
To be sure, there are challenges to the use of neurotechnology in music. Neuralink’s chip, for instance, can get rusty and need replacing — which would mean going under the knife again. And it’s unclear if the technology market and consumers beyond the music industry are ready for products like the Halo and Dev Kit headsets. The long-term effects of having a battery connected to your brain are also unknown.
“We just don’t know what happens when people do this [on] an ongoing basis,” says Jorge Barraza, an applied psychology professor at the University of Southern California. “The research that we have, it’s typically a one-and-done for most of the studies.”
Still, scientists believe they’re on the right track. Neurotech’s applications in athletics — whether to fine-tune practice sessions or mentally prepare ahead of a big game — have already shown some success.
“When virtual reality came, there was a wow effect, but it’s only now that people are starting to use it for the industry,” Kouider reminds me. We’ll need similar patience with neurotech. “The end product — the one you can buy at Best Buy — is going to come, I think, in the next three, four years from now.”
If Halo’s music learning, Dev Kit’s mind control or Musk’s direct-to-brain downloads establish themselves as proven technologies, your passport to that journey as the musician you’ve always wanted to be is a headset away.