Persona Digital Music

The Musical Brain

Music, Meditation, Cognitive Benefits

I the early days of my experimentation with synthesizers, I encountered patterns of sound that produce meditative experiences, acoustic illusions, mind clearing, and  some very annoying experiences. At the same time I was experimenting with brain biofeedback using sound to reveal brain waves. The basic idea was that amplified brain waves could be evaluated by frequency and amplitude, desirable goals established and a sound signal would inform the subject when his or her brain waves were in the desired range. The most common goal was to achieve slow, symmetrical sine waves from each cerebral hemisphere; the frequency range of about 8 to 12 hertz was called alpha. One feedback that was popular involved a white noise generator whose amplitude was modulated by the alpha brain waves. Your would hear shush shush shush.

White noise is in itself of great interest. White is a color metaphor – white light includes all the visible light frequencies and white noise contains all the audible range of sound frequencies. White noise is inherently relaxing and is often used to mask other noises in acoustic spaces. I accidently discovered that my experienced subjects responded most favorably to a test wave generator that modulated the white noise at 6 to 8 hertz. They thought that they were listening to their brain waves. They described a sense of calm, peace and a clear mind and left the session feeling good.

For many years after, I would treat myself to white noise relaxation and other sound experiences that left me feeling calm and clear. I began to refer to mind sweepers – sound experiences that left you feeling refreshed and ready to tackle complex life problems. I began to appreciate that the listener can be a very creative person in the mix of composer-performer-listener. Too much music is tyrannical and leaves no room for the listener to create their own experience. The essence of healing music is not just a calming or soporific effect, but an opportunity for the listener to participate and create. This opportunity requires space between sounds, slow gradual transitions and nuanced understanding of the brain processing of sound.

  • Some of the basic properties of brain sound processing that I utilize both in music and in created meditative (aka healing) sound  experiences are:
  • The brain will produce a beating effect if two similar sounds are presented to each ear (through headphones) with less than 2 Hz frequency difference. More than 2 Hz and individual pitches are heard; the beating stops. The beating effect is a powerful mind cleanser.
  • Repeating sounds produce habituation (reduced interest in and acuity of the sounds) and a learning effect. If a rhythmic pattern is repeated several times, for example, and then you leave out some of the notes the missing sounds are still heard.
  • Spatial sound processing is essential for survival. Moving sounds are of great interest and renew alerting, orienting responses. This is excellent cognitive exercise. The Doppler effect involves a decrease in pitch and a change in timbre when an approaching sound passes by. 
  • Complex staccato passages with precise but low amplitude sounds are followed closely by the temporal cortex. I am often amazed by how many notes in interweaving layers my brain is willing to decipher. If the notes form interesting patterns and move in space, they remain fresh and invigorating. While repetition is good, too much can become annoying. Small variations in a repeating pattern will avoid habituation and annoyance. The occasional, surprising sound will awaken new interest.
  • Humans spontaneously synchronize movements to rhythmic sounds. This ability is the basis for dance and for the group cohesion that occurs during musical events. Monotonously repeating rhythms have trance inducing value but also can induce habituation and loose their effectiveness. Even slight variations or periodic interruptions tend to renew  interest in a repeating rhythm.

    The best melodies tend to be short and simple. They are easily sung and can be learned with a few repetitions. Once a melody is familiar, we tend to recognize it immediately when it recurs and feel positive about the experience. Variations on the melody will also be recognized. The most obvious variation is transposition ( Key change). Small variations in rhythm  will also be accepted but if the variation is excessive, the sense of familiarity may be lost.

Counterpoint for Genius

I discovered that JS Bach's counterpoint, probably the most elegant expression of  well considered complexity, if presented with clear definition of interacting voices, becomes a delightful form of brain exercise. My Counterpoint for Genius series is a collection of albums that has evolved over several years though experimentation with a number of transcriptions of Bach pieces, many from the religious Cantatas, mixed with different voicing and, different tempos and transpositions. The goal is to produce delight and enhance general intelligence in the listener.

The Musical Brain and other topics presented at Persona Digital Studio
are from the book, The Sound of Music by Stephen Gislason.
Click the Download button to order the eBook from Alpha Online

persona mandala

Persona Digital Studio is located on the Sunshine Coast, Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada.

All the recordings are arrangements, performances and recordings are completed in house by Stephen Gislason.