Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Making music with brain waves: An interview with Finn Peters

When I first read about Finn Peters I was confused, disturbed and very intrigued. Years of buddying up to science types and researching things the average man on the street couldn't even spell has mean that he's part of a pioneering group of musicians using brainwave technology to create music. In other words, he pops on a headset, plugs himself into a computer and creates jazzy trip hop-type sounds by recording the activity of his grey matter. Ahead of his group's performance at the Vortex Jazz Club we had a chat about the possibilities that are created when the brain is used as an instrument...

In as non-scientific a nutshell as possible, how do the headsets work?

Well, the guys that invented them have patented them and so they're pretty cagey about letting us know how they work. From what I understand the software mirrors the sort of patterns your brain makes when it is in deep states of concentration and so when you are plugged in, it responds to the beta waves created by your brain, which are associated with concentration.

How is the overall sound created? Is every member of the band making a different sound using their brainwaves to create an overall melody?

You can do that, or you can manage the software so it puts every person in control of different aspects of one musical entity. So when you're making a sound, one person will be controlling the frequency, one person might control the filter, one might control how loud the sound is.

How much nuance can you get from the headsets?

It's all based on how much focus you have. The harder you concentrate the higher the pitch will go for example. They did lots of experiments in the lab and found that musicians tend to be able to concentrate a lot over short periods of time which means that we are able to have a sustained level of control with them and therefore get more from the sound.

Can you see it becoming more accurate in the future? You can currently control individual sounds but do you envision a time when you'd be able to think of songs in your head and have a computer play them?

That's really what I'm hoping to do. If we could even get to the stage where we could get a computer to play 'Ba Ba Blacksheep' it would be amazing. It would be Nobel Prize-winning stuff. I definitely think it's possible, as they're already doing something similar using this technique. When we were first experimenting, Mick Grierson (the man behind the software) hooked me up to the computer and it flashed up a load of musical notes. You thought of one of them and out of the 64 notes on screen it would pick up which one you were thinking of.


I just couldn't believe it. It was that experiment that got me into doing this.

Do you get different sounds from different situations? If, for example, you wanted to convey anger or sadness could you do that?

Sort of. Different conditions certainly give you different results. When we were recording we did an experiment measuring my brainwaves when I was asleep. They were playing me different sine waves whilst I slept and then we looked at the patterns the waves made which altered a lot.

How have people responded?

Everyone seems to be really interested in what we're doing. We did one London gig and people were queuing round the block, but it has been hard to get gigs because a lot of people don't understand whether it's science or art. Or they think that it's just not possible.

Can you see this being a commercial venture? Perhaps this kind of software could enable people to create songs from their homes or imagine songs in their bedrooms...

Definitely. A lot of the applications would be very helpful for people who can't play an instrument for whatever reason, if they're unable to use their limbs for example. They could wear a headset and just be thinking of music. There are loads of different uses for it. I think it's an invention with a lot of legs.

It seems like it could potentially be extremely exciting...

The best part for me is that it's a different way of writing music. It's not just me sitting down with a pen and paper; it's me strapping on some crazy gear and experimenting a bit. More than that though it provokes discussion. It gets people thinking. We're not encouraged to do that very much in this country. They like to keep us calm and buying things and not actually thinking for ourselves. Anything that gets us doing that has to be a positive.

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