NeuroPop's Ghostly Synth Tunes Take Aim At Your BrainS

A neuroscience professor has teamed up with a composer in the hopes of making music that stimulates different areas of the brain. Here's a first-person account of what it's like to experience "weapons grade sound design."

NeuroPop is a collaboration between Seth Horowitz, an assistant research professor in psychology and neuroscience at Brown University, and Lance Massey, a session and commercial composer. The project, which Horowitz and Massey describe as "weapons grade sound design," has existed for a few years, and its goal is to touch people's minds with music—to figure out the sounds and frequencies and patterns that our brains respond to, at an emotional and physiological level, and to create music that incorporates these neural triggers.

Horowitz and Massey recently released RealSleep, an album calibrated to help people "go to sleep faster and stay asleep longer." Since I already have a problem with sleeping too much, I suspected this might not be the right product for me, but to mark the occasion, I decided to go back and see what NeuroPop's 2004 album, "Overload: The Sonic Intoxicant," might do to my brain. There are three tracks on "Overload," each about twenty minutes long and each crafted to produce a certain neurological response in the listener. Here's a liveblog of the experience.

OVERLOAD: THE SONIC INTOXICANT

Track 1: "Focus"

- (0:00) I only have the track names to go by, but I assume this piece is supposed to help you pay closer attention to whatever you're doing. "Focus" begins with a hazy palette of strings that sound like they're being run through some kind of gating effect. It's a little disorienting. I'm reminded of "Treefingers," the instrumental track from Radiohead's "Kid A" that consisted of dreamy, distorted guitar samples pasted together.

- (About 6:00) The strings fade, to be replaced by a throbbing, barely-there bass drum, some chimes and glitchy electronic effects, and a heavily vocoded voice breathing "Relax" and "I know you want to know me." Really? This sounds like Jarvis Cocker teamed up with Moby for some reason—Moby from the "Hotel" era, when he lost interest in songs that had beats and kept your attention.

- (About 17:00) At this point, there's no melody and only a faint suggestion of rhythm. The music is just a series of mutters and subtle digital flourishes, anchored by a drum track that sounds like a heartbeat, and my awareness of it has declined considerably. I've noticed, though, that my typing really sucks—it seems like I'm misspelling something every other word. Granted, this is pretty normal for me, but shouldn't I be more "focused"? Also, I'm supposed to be doing this write-up, but I keep cleaning my fingernails, browsing Hipster Runoff, etc. I'm not convinced this music is doing anything for my attention span.

- (About 20:30) The strings start to rise again, slower and less aggressive than they were at the beginning. They crescendo in a way that's actually quite lovely and wistful, but again, I don't know if it makes me more "focused"—the music is so pretty that I think I'd actually want to stop whatever I was doing and concentrate on it. This is music for staring out of a train window, not bucking down and meeting a deadline. Whoops, the song's over.

Track 2: "Eros"

- (0:00) Your guess is as good as mine what this track name refers to. Maybe this is the booty-shakin' side of NeuroPop? The first three or four minutes make me doubt it—this part is extremely understated, with another just-audible kick drum thumping away underneath a high-pitched, shimmering tone that sounds like the oscillator of a muted TV.

- (About 4:30) Another high-pitched tone is introduced and just kind of hovers there. The kick drum continues to flicker at the edge of hearing. Some more vocoded voices murmur unintelligible words. There are bloops and splashes of keyboard. For some reason I think of Tool—with the creepy atmospherics, this is a little bit like how Tool might sound if they left out every part of their music that makes it classifiable as "rock" (guitars, lyrics, snare drums, a sense of urgency).

- (About 9:30) Oh shit, what's this? An actual beat? Stomping and clapping in a recognizably metered pattern? Plus some ominous bass notes on the fake synth-cello? This passage is sort of minimalist-industrial sounding—I think of Nine Inch Nails, but again, stripped of every exciting element. Well, I guess it's not supposed to be pop music; it's supposed to set the mood for something, put you in a certain neurological environment. I try to think of what activity might be improved by having this as a soundtrack. Stalking somebody through a warehouse at night?

- (About 14:00) Some truly terrible beatmatching segues us out of that movement and into the next one, which uses a different tempo. Eesh. I hope that was supposed to be jarring and distracting. Now we're back to chimes, occasional metallic tinging sounds, and a skittish hi-hat track that sounds like a refugee from a Postal Service album.

- (About 18:00) Everything gradually fades out until there's just a rhythmic shushing noise that repeats and repeats. Are Horowitz and Massey aware that this sounds like a washing machine? Is this what you want on the sexytime track?

- (About 19:00) The return of the high-pitched note from (4:30), which I did not miss. Sounds like a runaway carbon monoxide detector.

Track 3: "Vertigo Tour"

- (4:00) Okay, this one is a little more interesting. A sea of formless melodic blares, a series of descending digital squeals. Another bare-bones microhouse beat, but this one's a little more confident and assertive. White noise drifts through in three- and four-second bursts like clouds passing the sun.

- (About 9:00) The introduction of a rising, ethereal synth melody and some more electronic cricket noises and stuff. This is the track, according to The Boston Globe, that made one listener vomit and another fall out of his chair; I haven't done either so far, although my mouth does taste faintly of cashews. I think this is because I was eating cashews, though.

- (About 16:00) The last few minutes of this track are very low-key: just an echoey two-note figure repeating over chittering "smoke monster from Lost" noises. If I wasn't paying attention, I doubt I'd even be aware of the music. The two-note figure fades, and we get a mournful string fanfare that would be excellent for playing over the credits of a horror movie, and then that's it.

So! That was the NeuroPop experience. To be honest, I don't feel like my brain was plied or caressed all that much—there were just some ambient compositions that would make okay background music for office work, but in any other context would probably fall off your radar immediately. But wait... what's this? Do I suddenly have incredible, River Tam-like small-arms and hand-to-hand combat skills? No. No, I don't. And if I did, it would probably be because of the cashews.

Pictured: some adorable kid (not the author). Photo by Inferis, used under a Creative Commons license.