Making Neuroscience Into Music
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.
Sarah Hennies is a composer and a visiting assistant professor of music at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
DESSA: A few years ago, I partnered with an fMRI lab and a neurofeedback practitioner, and we ran a little experiment to try to help me fall out of love. If it worked, I figured I’d finally be free from the old flame and, more interesting, as a songwriter, with attention to turn to something other than torch songs. I recently learned about another musician who also integrated neuroscience and memory into her work.
Sarah Hennies is an award-winning composer and visiting assistant professor of music at Bard College. Her work has been performed at MoMA PS1, in New York, and at international festivals, and her new piece motor tapes, performed by ensemble Daedalus, takes its inspiration from a neuroscientific theory of the same name.
Here is a brief clip.
And now, to tell me about the neuroscience that inspired the piece is its composer, Sarah Hennies. Welcome to Science Friday.
SARAH HENNIES: Thank you. Happy to be here.
DESSA: Super stoked to have you. OK. So this piece was inspired by a PBS special you saw about Oliver Sacks and music research, is that right?
SARAH HENNIES: It was, yeah. It was a TV version of his book, Musicophilia. But the part that inspired the piece specifically is this brief scene, where Sacks is hooked up to a brain scan, and he’s saying how he’s always loved Bach and he’s never liked Beethoven. And they play him some Beethoven, and his brain just sort of looks normal. And then they play him a highly equivalent piece of music sound-wise by Bach, and all of a sudden his whole brain lights up.
JOY HIRSCH: This is your Bach brain, and this is your Beethoven brain.
OLIVER SACKS: Sorry, Ludwig.
JOY HIRSCH: Yeah, sorry, Ludwig. There’s not much there.
SARAH HENNIES: And so one of my questions always has been like, well, what is that? Why would his brain respond so much to one piece of music and then not at all to some really similar thing? And so that’s part of what inspired this piece.
DESSA: I mean, it sounds like your brain lit up watching Oliver Sacks’ brain remotely on PBS. That relates specifically to this neuroscientific concept of motor tapes, right? That’s the name of your piece, and it sounds like that was the direct neuroscientific inspiration. Can you describe for the uninitiated what are motor tapes?
SARAH HENNIES: Yeah. His name is Rodolfo Llinás. He’s a neuroscientist. And Sacks quotes this theory, called motor tapes, where Llinás theorizes that the brain is a giant mass of constantly-running tape loops, and that our decision to have a thought or move a muscle or anything is our brain calling up the tape related to those actions. Like for instance, if you want to use a group of muscles at the same time to walk, then that is your brain voluntarily choosing to call those loops up.
But then, one of the big inspirations of the piece is that part of Sacks’ book is about earworms and how the phenomenon of getting a song stuck in your head just over and over and over again– particularly what interested me is, for no reason– that, to me, there seems to be a correlation between the earworm and this theory of repetition. And I read the description of motor tapes to a friend of mine when I first heard about this and he just started laughing. And he was like, you don’t even need to write the piece. This is just describing music. He even uses the phrase “random motor pattern noise generator.” And it’s like, well, there you go. There’s your piece of music.
DESSA: OK. So if I get it right, you’ve got this theory from Rodolfo Llinás who’s talking about these looping background brain activity that, even if we’re unaware of it, there’s these constantly repeating signals that only then selectively rise to our conscious attention. I know music makers spend a lot of time thinking about how to balance repeating loops– even just a familiar chorus– with new motifs.
How do you balance and how do you think about repetition in your own work and in this piece?
SARAH HENNIES: Well, I’ve been working almost exclusively with repetition, I guess, over 15 years now. But prior to 2021, most of my work would be these just long, long, long repetitions of really simple material. At first, it was single sounds and then single patterns. Like, I have a piece called The Reinvention of Romance. It’s an hour and a half piece for cello and one percussionist. And the whole thing is just three or four minutes of a repeating pattern, and another one, and another one, and another one. And it was like, when I read the description of motor tapes, it was just like, this is what I’m doing.
And then, while I’m writing this piece, I thought, well, gee, our bodies are repetitious. Our breathing and the way we walk and the way our eyes blink and the way our heart beats, they’re all repeating loops. And so it was, when I read the motor tapes thing, it wasn’t exactly that I thought, oh, I can do that. It was more, I read it, and I said, I recognize this.
DESSA: You mentioned that, in this piece, there are certain actually lived memories that are represented. Can you give an example of one?
SARAH HENNIES: Yeah, a huge part of this piece is based on this memory I have from being a really young child, like, I think five years old. And I had just learned to ride a bike. And I just have this persistent memory that always comes back to me my entire life at random times– so through the Llinás theory, that loop is being called up involuntarily– of the bike that I got had a radio on it. And this is in the ’80s. And I can see it. I have this vivid memory of riding up and down my street, with the song, I Want to Know What Love Is, by Foreigner, on the radio.
DESSA: Oh, yeah.
SARAH HENNIES: And that song is ubiquitous. It’s on the radio all the time. And every single time I hear it, I remember that.
And then, of course, I have also had the question for years of, why do I remember that? It wasn’t special– at least it didn’t seem special. It just was like, I just remember it. And this is what I’m so interested in, is trying to answer that question of, why? I’m genuinely just straight trying to understand myself. And I’ve done this a lot, but I feel like, by putting these kinds of things into artwork, then you can see them objectively. And I’ve learned a lot about myself that way. Like, not just as an artist, but like as a person.
DESSA: Yeah, totally. And sometimes it feels like you’re just sort of born in a machine that you then reverse engineer to figure out how on Earth it’s working.
SARAH HENNIES: Yeah. And I feel like my practice is based almost entirely on trying to decode my identity. I’m trying to pull something out of me, rather than create something out of nothing.
DESSA: A quick sidebar, first of all, just to say, having a radio on your bike in the ’80s was a serious flex. You dropped that real casual.
SARAH HENNIES: Yeah.
DESSA: But please know that it was jotted down, and points awarded.
What do you think that, when we’re listening to music that focuses on repetition in the way yours does– motor tapes, specifically– what do we learn about our bodies and about science, do you think, from investigating those loops? Is there some fundamental truth about repetition in our organic selves?
SARAH HENNIES: Everyone has a relationship to repetition, whether they know it or not. It’s pervasive at literally every level of society in our bodies, down to the most basic physical and biological activity. I recently read in a book called Sound, by Michel Chion, that the earliest sense experience of a fetus is that of the overlapping repetition of its own heartbeat and the parent’s heartbeat.
And again, it’s like, oh, the thing that I’m doing is at the deepest possibly embedded human phenomenon, in that the very first thing we experience is these overlapping heartbeats. Which is how the piece starts. It has this sort of electrical pulse sound, and then this very low, soft bass drum thing that is not reminiscent of a heartbeat exactly, but–
DESSA: I’m freaking out because this is so interesting. And then, even after we’re in the world– I mean, this kind of relentless cycle of repetition.
SARAH HENNIES: Yeah. For me, the reason I got so excited about this kind of work in the last couple of years is because I recognized this repetitive behavior I had, where I would repeat stories to people that feel really insignificant or something. And then it would be years later where I would think, oh, that’s why I’m into this.
And a perfect example of that is that, about 20 years ago, I was on tour with my old band. And we were playing a show in Albuquerque and staying at a friend of my guitar player, who was a mathematician. And I had had this conversation with her that I just– I repeated the story so many times that it was just so funny that she had said, yeah, I came up with this award-winning theory while I was on ecstasy.
And that’s a funny story, but it’s not that funny. It’s not a repeat it for 20 years kind of story. But it was only probably a decade later, when I started thinking about my gender and when I started transitioning, that I realized that this person was the first trans woman that I had ever spoken to.
And so it’s like my brain remembered that for that reason. And it wasn’t until I had to decode it later that I realized why I was telling people this story all the time. And so that experience really fundamentally informs this piece, motor tapes.
DESSA: Oh, man, thank you so much, Sarah, for taking the time to talk to us about this piece.
SARAH HENNIES: My pleasure.
DESSA: That was Sarah Hennies, composer and scholar.