How This Composer Integrated Neuroscience Into Her Music

Composer Sarah Hennies’ new piece “Motor Tapes” was inspired by a neurological theory of the same name. How did she translate it to music?

A white woman in a black shirt in a dark room raises a mallet among various brown mallets and hot pink pipes hanging down around her.
Composer Sarah Hennies. Credit: David Andrews

Listen to Universe of Art on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsStitcherTuneIn, or your favorite podcasting app.

When composer Sarah Hennies learned about a neurological theory called “motor tapes” from Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia, the concept stuck with her for years. The theory comes from neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, who posited that many of our thoughts, memories, and physical movements operate via a series of “looping tapes,” with the goal of reducing the amount of energy the brain uses while doing common, repetitive tasks.

The concept resonated with Hennies, who is also a visiting assistant professor of music at Bard College. Most of her compositions use heavy amounts of repetition, and Llinás’ theory fit with how she experienced her own memories and the evolution of her identity. Her piece “Motor Tapes” premiered in early August, performed by Ensemble Dedalus. 

Hennies joins guest host and musician Dessa to talk about repetition in music, how to translate neuroscience into art, and what that pairing can reveal about our bodies and the world around us.

Universe of Art is hosted and produced by D. Peterschmidt, who also wrote the music. Our show art was illustrated by Abelle Hayford. Support for Science Friday’s science and arts coverage comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Do you have an idea for a future episode of Universe of Art? Send us an email or a voice memo to

Meet the Writer

About D. Peterschmidt

D. Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

Explore More

How Video Game Devs And Musicians Are Processing Climate Change

How does our changing climate get expressed in a folk song versus a video game?

Read More

“The Pod Generation” Explores High-Tech Alternatives To Pregnancy

In the film “The Pod Generation,” a couple finds out what it’s like to grow their baby inside a pod. But how will the technology affect society?

Read More