From the big bang to cosmic vibrations, Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart plays the rhythm of the universe

July 2, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Mickey Hart, a well-known drummer for the Grateful Dead, has collaborated with astrophysicists on music that reflects the origins of the universe, and with neuroscientists to figure out how music stimulates different parts of damaged brains. Special correspondent Mike Cerre follows Hart’s exploration of music and the universe, and our human response to rhythm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we begin a two-part look at the iconic music group the group Grateful Dead, who are this week preparing for their final reunion concerts in Chicago.

First up, we focus on longtime Dead drummer Mickey Hart and his fascination with finding sounds in the most unlikely places.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre takes us on a very special trip to learn more.

MICKEY HART, Drummer, Grateful Dead: This is really the sounds of the universe. This is what the cosmos sounds like.

Pythagoras found the secrets of the universe, the rhythm of the universe, the mathematics of the universe through just a long string which vibrated. If I had any guru, it would have to be Pythagoras, and of course rhythm is the god.

MIKE CERRE: In the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll gods, the Grateful Dead have always been known for their somewhat cosmic approach to music. As one of its founding drummers, Mickey Hart has spent the better part of his professional life outside of the Grateful Dead exploring the cultural and scientific basis of good vibrations.

MICKEY HART: The universe is made up of vibrations. I have been very interested in sonifying the universe, the cosmos, the sun, the Big Bang, taking those radiations from telescopes, radio telescopes, and turning that radiation into sound, which I make music out of and compose with, in the macro, and now in the micro with the brain waves, heart rhythms, DNA, stem cells.

All of these have a sound. And so we take these sounds in and we embed them in the music.

MIKE CERRE: Mickey’s search for the universal source of rhythm has gone intergalactic and all the way back to the beginning of the cosmos.

MICKEY HART: The moment of creation, beginning of time and space, when the blank page of the universe exploded and it created the stars, the planets, black holes, pulsars, supernovas, this was the beginning of time and space, and then us. And then we are still now toying with this rhythmic stimuli that was created 13.7 billion years ago.

GEORGE SMOOT, University of California, Berkeley: What is needed is someone who is artistic to hear these sounds and be inspired by them and turn them into something that is really pleasing for people to hear.

MIKE CERRE: Astrophysicist George Smoot earned a Nobel Prize for his work in charting the origins of what many believe to be the beginning of creation, with the Big Bang. He’s also a longtime Dead Head.

MICKEY HART: He can show me waveforms of the first million years and all that. And that’s really great. But as soon as I see it, I said, give me those waveforms, George. And let’s see what they sound like. And let’s dance to those things. And George said, yes.

MIKE CERRE: With the help of the University of California at Berkeley’s supercomputer, Smoot’s team converted light wave traces from the Big Bang into sound waves for Mickey to work with.

MICKEY HART: Because it’s very inharmonic. It’s very dense. There’s a lot of collisions up there, and there’s a lot of bumps and grinds and pulses and stuff and noise, which you wouldn’t call music.

But I take it, and I make it into what the human ear would call music, so we can enjoy it.

We’re getting there, George. I’m getting there, George.

MIKE CERRE: This was one of Mickey Hart’s first laboratories for his scientific experiments. He and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia used to sneak onto the Golden Gate Bridge at night when it was closed to pedestrians, sometimes armed with rubber mallets, so they could record the vibrations of the bridge and include them in the Grateful Dead performances in the ’60s and ’70s, during the band’s heyday.

Years later, he worked with the Exploratorium museum and the National Science Foundation on creating a replica of the bridge with sensors, so he could actually play it as a musical instrument. And he did, with great fanfare, for the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary.

MICKEY HART: Now, I would like to do something with it, as it is as important as playing Grateful Dead music.

See, the thing about music is that you take the feeling that you get from music and you take it out in the world and you do some good with it. It can be used for other things than dancing and pleasure. It can be used as medicine. When I played a drum for my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s, she spoke my name. She hadn’t spoken in a year. That was power. Where did it come from? How did this do that?

MIKE CERRE: Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a research neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is working with Mickey on identifying rhythms that can stimulate different parts of diseased and damaged brains.

DR. ADAM GAZZALEY, University of California, San Francisco: Mickey’s wearing an E.G. cap, and each of these electrodes are detecting those very subtle signals that have rhythmic activity being generated by the neurons in his brain. Quite a nice looking brain.

MICKEY HART: Thank you. Thank you. I like it.

DR. ADAM GAZZALEY: Mickey should be proud of that brain.

So, this a live recording right now of Mickey’s brain.

MICKEY HART: The only way to find the code on how music works is through science. And that’s my relationship with Adam Gazzaley and other scientists, to find, how does it work on the brain?

DR. ADAM GAZZALEY: So if you can prescribe a certain rhythmic treatment and actually validate that there is an outcome that is reproducible, it would be a really powerful way of looking at modern medicine.

MICKEY HART: It seems like a very natural thing from my research in music and medicine. The shaman use drums. They use rattles in all their forms of healing. So it’s not something that we’re inventing, but we’re progressing because of science.

MIKE CERRE: A team of stem cell researchers at the Gladstone Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, are working with Mickey on identifying impulses generated by brain and heart cells.

DR. DEEPAK SRIVASTAVA, Gladstone Institutes: The idea is that we might be able to, with Mickey Hart’s approach, convert that electrical energy into sound and be able to map differences between diseased cells versus normal cells.

MICKEY HART: So, we will know what frequencies, what rhythms have been cut or broken and then be able to replace that with a healthier rhythm, a healthier sound, a healthier frequency perhaps that will make this a therapy, a legitimate science.

MIKE CERRE: For the Grateful Dead’s upcoming 50th anniversary concerts, Mickey Hart is pulling out all the science stops and digging deep into his research of the origins of rhythm and good vibrations to create one of the band’s signature rhythm devils sequences with drummer Bill Kreutzmann for the Grateful Dead’s final performance together.

MICKEY HART: Pythagoras is the owner of this, actually. He’s the guy.

MIKE CERRE: And what are people going to hear for the 50th anniversary that maybe no one has ever heard before?

MICKEY HART: Oh, they’re going to hear the lowest note sounded in a concert, which is 19 cycles that you can’t really go to.

MIKE CERRE: And will you feel that in your chest?

MICKEY HART: Oh, yes, you will feel it all over. It will vibrate your whole body. And it won’t scare you. It will just make you feel really good. It’s kind of just like a bath.

MIKE CERRE: For the PBS NewsHour, this is Mike Cerre reporting from San Francisco.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I can already feel it.

We will have more on the Grateful Dead and the band’s final concerts on Monday.