The Polyphonic Brain - The music of brainwaves

Darius, Rountree-Harrison

BSc, GDPA, MPhil, QEEG-T, PhD (Candidate)


Brain activity is a song composed by 86 billion neurons. This song has key refrains, sung time and time again by the 6 key large scale brain networks that weave the melodies of our experiences together from inception to swan song. This musical analogy is more literal than hyperbole, with information transmitted in these key networks by the coordinated activity of vast neuronal ensembles producing brainwaves of different frequencies, amplitudes and durations.

The complex patterns recorded in an EEG (electroencephalograph, meaning electric brain drawing) are composed like any musical movement. The percussion, is the resonate thudding of the heart, which sets soft neuronal tissues quivering around 70 beats per minute.  In musical terms this speed is referred to as Adagio, which means to play slowly, calmly and at ease. 

Anxious individuals tend to have faster heartrates ranging from a walking paced Andante (80 – 100 BPM) to the lively and brisk paced Allegro (120 – 160 BPM). One past client of mine even exceeded the extremely fast Prestissimo range (168 – 208 BPM) as a result of salmonella poisoning, which required a medically induced coma to prevent vascular brain damage. 

Conversely, many of the refugee client’s with medical issues present with a heart rate in the slow and solemn Gravé range (40 – 50 BPM), which is often a foundational factor in their comorbid depression symptoms. The heart’s percussion is overlayed by the low basal tones of slow cortical potentials (slower than 1 cycle per second), like a slowly bowed double bass oscillating neurons between their active and inactive states.

The complexity of the EEG builds with the inclusion of slow delta waves (1 to 4 cycles per second) being played on a Tibetan sound bowl echoing out the deep homeostatic needs such as sleep that define this brain wave. Delta is an enigmatic brainwave, while often associated with slow inactivity; it can also be healing and be an active player in learning. The haunting minor chords of a clarinet sound the emotional dreamscape of the limbic system’s theta activity (4 to 8 cycles per second). It is in these frequencies that the tonality of our brain’s symphony is formed.

Theta activity can be associated with epileptic activity akin to the sharp squeals of a clarinet, which are sometimes accompanied with irritability, headaches and confusion. Alternatively, flourishes of theta activity interspersed amid other brain frequencies are crucial to the jubilant experiences occasionally encountered when learning or meditating. The melodic middle C of a piano forms the backbone of the EEG in the smooth undulating alpha waves (8 to 12 cycles per second) that coordinates activity in the brain like a conductor.

Alpha plays perhaps the most important role in the brain’s symphony, with too little of it anxiety and alcoholism are common, with too much depression and memory issues are common. The sweet spot for alpha is around 10 cycles per second, where the music sounds its best. Alpha played like a meno piano with slower frequencies is associated with drowsiness, while piu piano or a faster alpha rhythm is associated with being overly alert.

These alert frequencies are continued with the brio violin tones of the beta range (12 to 30 cycles per second) the fast activity generated by cortical processes in problem solving and decision making. The promethean flame of thought itself is bound together in a fuoco flute riff of gamma activity (30 cycles per second and above). The fast bursts of gamma activity are thought to emerge from activity within the large scale brain networks reflecting apperceptive processes. Too much gamma is responsible for déjà vu and is involved in the hallucinations of schizophrenia. Conversely, too little gamma is related to loss of cognitive functioning due to the degeneration of networks that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).


The polyphony of brain frequencies forms harmonics and cross-frequency-couplings, the equivalent of a choral oratorio, binding together information encapsulated by each frequency range of brain activity into a single EEG symphony worthy of Euterpe, the musician’s Muse.


Appollo and the muses Eurerpe and Caliope.

More than providing an analogy, music also has a profound effect on the brain. Examining an unknown brain, the neurobiologist Sandra Witelson, an expert on the effects to brain structures of playing music, identified the brain as having belonged to a violinist, due to the increased size of the parietal lobes. Her identification was correct; the brain belonged to Albert Einstein, who was a consummate violinist. The increase parietal lobe size, an area involved in visuospatial reasoning and mathematical representation of concepts was likely to have been a factor in his brilliance.

The structural changes seen in musicians are partly a result of the vast amounts of time dedicated to their practice. Similarly, the length of time practicing meditation or a foreign language corresponds to the degree of structural changes in the brain. However, music can have far more immediate effects. Musical terms such as appassionato, to play passionately or with intense feeling and emotion, hint at the ability for music to convey emotional meaning and perhaps to evoke emotional responses. Research has shown that music can give rise to involuntary responses including muscular contraction or relaxation and cognitive responses such as increased alertness and pleasure.

An overwhelming number of studies have linked music evoked emotions such as tenderness, peacefulness or joy to activity in the anterior hippocampus, an area traditionally associated with memory, but increasingly understood to have a role in attachment related behaviours that underpin social interactions. In treating trauma, we use neuromodulation devices that use music to train the nervous system to respond to the frequencies produced in human speech. This training activates neuronal pathways that increase activity in the hippocampus and increases positive affect and prosocial behaviours.

Music has an emotional prosody that conveys preverbal and non-verbal meaning, derived from systems deep within the brain that evolved to decipher the ancient alarm and mating calls of our evolutionary past. Music taps into the feeling parts of the brain, and is able to elicit physiological responses more consistently between individuals than is seen in the words used to describe these sensations. As a general rule of thumb, the tempo of music tends to entrain brain activity to produce brain activity in the same frequency range, which is accompanied by the associated psychological states. Depending on your initial level of alertness and emotional state slower tempo music such as the those in the Gravé range (40 – 50 BPM) will induce relaxation or depression; while faster tempo music in the Allegro range (120 – 160 BPM) will induce excitation or anxiety. However, the type of music doesn’t seem to matter as much as personal preference for the genera, with studies showing heavy metal and rap music being equally as calming as classical for individual that appreciated the musical style.

In some individuals bizarre effects such as musicogenic epilepsy, musical hallucinations, comatose patients waking and parkinsonian patients being able walk again, attest to the deep influence music can have on brain activity. This deep influence of music stems from our evolutionary past and the pre-verbal emotional brain that underpins much of our experience. The ability of music to entrain brain activity, regulate emotion, promote social interaction and heal trauma show some of the intricate connections between music and brain function. Our polyphonic brains are comprised of different rhythms and networks working together like instruments in an orchestra to produce the symphony of consciousness. Just as music from Apollo’s lyre transformed inanimate objects into musical instruments, music can at times have a god like ability to transform both the physical and psychological functioning of our brains.