Electrodes instead of drumsticks at Grateful Dead member's Jerusalem concert

August 22, 2013

"Rhythm connects people with the universe," says former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart ahead of his Jerusalem concert, which incorporates sonification of his brainwaves.

Maybe this article should begin with one of those jokes that mock drummers’ intelligence. Mickey Hart, a former drummer for the Grateful Dead and now the leader of the Mickey Hart Band, plays straight from the brain on his new album "Superorganism."

With one of those caps with electrodes - an EEG cap - Hart recorded his brainwaves, sonified them and integrated them into his songs - with heartbeats, too. On Thursday night he goes on stage at the Mount Scopus Amphitheater in Jerusalem with the EEG cap, which will record his brainwaves as he performs and translate them into 3D sound and animation on a screen.

"I have been obsessed with sonification now for the past four years," Hart said in an email interview with Haaretz. "First I sonified the universe for my CD 'Mysterium Tremendum,' next I was asked to create a piece of music in honor of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge using the vibrations of the bridge, then I created a piece of music for the America’s Cup based on the ecology of the San Francisco Bay. And most recently, with ‘Superorganism,’ I went from the macro (space) to the micro (the physiological rhythms inside all of us). The brain is a superorganism ... rhythm central."

Hart, who celebrates his 70th birthday next month, has won many awards and is one of the two Grateful Dead drummers, along with Bill Kreutzmann. Together they were known as “rhythm devils," a name they adopted for the band they started in 2006.

"For 66 of my 69 years I was deep in the world of rhythm," he said in an interview with City Pages. When asked where beat comes from, he replied: "While writing my books 'Drumming at the Edge [of Magic]' and 'Planet Drum,' I started going back in history: Neolithic, Paleolithic. Then I realized I would have to go from the beginning from the moment of creation. That's 13.7 billion years ago. So that's where the beats came from.

"So I started there, gathering sounds from the stars, the planets, supernovas. It became a sonic timeline. But what does it all sound like? Pythagoras, being the father of the science of music around 300 B.C., called it "The Music of the Spheres."

For many years, Hart has studied the connection between music and a person's physical and emotional well-being. In 2009 he discussed the experience that launched this journey in an interview in honor of his entry into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

It’s all about the vibrations

“Almost 30 years ago, my grandmother was suffering from Alzheimer’s. She was in the advanced stages and hadn’t spoken in quite some time. [In another interview he said that she hadn't spoken for a year.] I visited her and brought a drum to play for her and was astonished when she said my name! Rhythm connects people with the resonance of the universe. It’s all about vibrations. We’re now finding out what parts of the brain light up when we’re ‘on music,’ and it’s incredibly exciting. For me, it’s very personal. Watching my grandmother respond so positively to sound and rhythm was a turning point.”

In 1991, Hart appeared before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, where he discussed the healing power of drumming and rhythm for age-related diseases. "Our bodies are multidimensional rhythm machines with everything pulsing in synchrony, from the digestive activity of our intestines to the firing of neurons in the brain,” he told the committee. “Within the body the main beat is laid down by the cardiovascular system, the heart and the lungs. The heart beats between 60 and 80 times per minute and the lungs fill and empty at about a quarter of that speed, all of which occurs at an unconscious level.

"As we age, however, these rhythms can fall out of synch. And then, suddenly, there is no more important or crucial issue than regaining that lost rhythm …. Rhythm is at the very center of our lives; by acknowledging this fact and acting on it, our potential for preventing illness and maintaining mental, physical and spiritual well-being is far greater. As a species, we love to play with rhythm. We deal with it every second of our lives, right to the end. When the rhythms stop, so do we."

Hart recommended that the committee channel funds to a program to bring percussion into the lives of the elderly. This would increase their connection to the outside world, decrease their sense of isolation and alienation, and improve their self-image. It would increase their ability to focus their thoughts and simply have more fun.

That year Hart established Rhythm for Life, a group that organized drumming and percussion workshops for the elderly. In 2000 Hart became a board member of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, an American nonprofit group that studies the effects of music on a person's well-being.

Parkinson's and Alzheimer's

Last year, Hart first went on stage with an EEG cap and played notes from his brainwaves. "I'm giving you my brain," he told the audience and laughed. "At least the sound of my brain."

It wasn't a musical performance but a conference of the American Association of Retired Persons in New Orleans, with neurologist Adam Gazzaley, the head of the Gazzaley Lab for cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. Gazzaley and his team developed the EEG cap for Hart's live performances.

"It's a handshake between science and the brain," explained Hart on the website of Yonas Media, the company that represents him, regarding his and Gazzaley’s Rhythm and Brain project. "This is about breaking the rhythm code. Once we know what rhythm truly does, then we'll be able to control it and use it medicinally for diagnostics .... To be able to reconnect the synapses, the connections that are broken in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, that's where we are heading.”

"What I do on stage is art," says Hart when asked whether his brain music is art or a by-product on the way to finding a cure for brain diseases. "But the goal of the Rhythm and Brain project is to advance our understanding of the role of rhythm in higher-order brain function, and also of how we can influence brain rhythms through novel interventions (e.g., neuromodulation, rhythm training, video game training, neurofeedback). The ultimate goal is to improve cognition and mood in the healthy and impaired, thus positively impacting the quality of our lives.”

Can we as humans control our brainwaves so that we’ll be able to actually play music?

"Oh yes. If humans can control robots with their brains, we can certainly play music with our brains."

Music is always made using the brain - what’s the main difference between traditional composing and playing, and having music played through your brainwaves?

"The difference here is the (neuro) feedback. I can interact with my brain activity in a way that was previously impossible."

Can you imagine new musical instruments operated by thought rather than touch and movement?

"Sure. Why shouldn’t a paralyzed person be able to play in a band"?

Hart and his band are now touring for the ”Superorganism” album, with some of the income from ticket sales going to the Rhythm and Brain project. His performance at the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival is taking place as part of the city’s culture season. "With millions of synapses firing off in harmony, in rhythm in a way, the brain is sacred," says Hart.

In any case, he says he’s not the right person to talk about the future of the music industry and its myriad ways for creating and distributing tunes.

"I can’t predict the future, and I wouldn’t consider myself an expert - of all things the music business. But I would say that I think music continues to reinvent and explore. As technology changes, so does the music."

- By Ido Kenan