Music in mind: science and art explore the conscious brain

From left: Research student Becky Heaver, neuroscientist Anil Seth, guitarist Richard Durrant and animator Kate Genevieve

What are the physical processes in the brain that create conscious thought and memory? How do billions of neurons inside our heads generate the experience of a melody?

To illuminate these complex questions in a fascinating lecture for the Ropetackle Art of Life Science series, neuroscientist Anil Seth has called on the creative talents of guitar virtuoso Richard Durrant and animator Kate Genevieve.

Dr Seth, who specialises in the study of consciousness, has taken as his inspiration the Spanish Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the father of modern neuroscience, whose work coincided with the golden age of Spanish classical guitar as composed and played by Albeniz, Barrios, Torrega, and Granados at the beginning of the 20th century.

Dr Seth says: "Ramon y Cajal was first to understand that the brain works by communication between neurons - and he did so by combining scientific insight with an extraordinary gift for illustration, generating beautiful images of the brain that we still use and wonder at today."

The act of learning and playing music serves as an excellent demonstration of how the brain learns, remembers and generates experiences: all of which can be shown by examining brain data produced by an actual musician - in this case, Richard Durrant.

Brain activity in Richard's brain was recorded while he was playing, then listening, to music he composed especially for the lecture. The resulting brain wave readings and brain scan images have been turned into some beautiful drawings and animations by Kate Genevieve, inspired both by the subject of the lecture - the artistic style of Ramon y Cajal - and the nature of the data: brain waves become musical notes and staves, then birds, then waves in the sea. Projection and installation artist Malcolm Buchanan-Dick uses his skills to complete the picture for the audience.

Kate, an independent digital animator and co-director of the upcoming 'Dream Machine' project for Brighton's White Night festival, says: "We want the music and animation to make the entire evening an immersive exploration of the elements making up a conscious experience."

But there is more to Richard Durrant's brain waves than pleasing pictures, as Dr Seth explains: "Richard's musicianship demonstrates the amazing capabilities of the brain and how a neural mechanism underpins responses to music.

"When you compare Richard's brain images with those of a non-musician, you see that the area of his brain that controls motor functions is stimulated when he both plays and listens to the music. It's almost as if he is re-enacting the experience.

"A non-musician listening to the piece doesn't show any of this motor activity. As Richard is a practised musician the motor function that controls his fingers will take on more brain 'real estate'. This is what is known as muscle memory."

Richard Durrant says: "The point of these collaborations is that the academic and the artist are taken out of their comfort zones - it's great fun."

The evening will go on to explore how neurons (brain cells) talk to each other and how music and memory are related in how our conscious selves persist over time.  All accompanied by dramatic visuals and evocative performances from Richard.

Dr Seth says: ": I think this is an excellent idea to find new ways to communicate different scientific ideas. I hope people will enjoy the evening and share with us the fascination for one of science's big questions - 'What's the biological basis of consciousness?'."

Notes for editors


Neuroscience and the Guitar is on Friday 22nd October 2010 at the Ropetackle Centre. Doors 7.30pm; Start 8pm. Book here

This event is kindly sponsored by Waer Systems.

For more information on the Sackler Centre, visit:

For more information about Richard Durrant, visit:

For more information about Kate Genevieve, visit:

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Last updated: Monday, 18 October 2010