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The Art of Science: Brain Music

The Brain Opera combines music and technology in a one-of-a-kind interactive musical experience created by composer Tod Machover and a team of computer scientists and artists from the MIT Media Lab. The opera debuted at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City in July 1996, and then went on to tour the world. In this segment, listen to the 20th-century sounds of hyperinstruments and join Alan Alda at the opera's premiere.

Curriculum Links
Related Frontiers Shows and Activities
Introduction: Tod Machover's Brain Opera
Activities: Music and the Mind



artificial intelligence



acoustics, pitch, sound waves





Inventing the Future (Show 701): Brain Opera


The Brain Opera is a true marriage of art, science and technology. Composer Tod Machover, along with a team of more than 50 musicians and scientists from the MIT Media Lab, created this musical event, which incorporates contributions of both online and live audiences.

What you see on Frontiers is a sample of the total event. The Brain Opera is based on Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind. Each performance of The Brain Opera has two components. In the introductory period, people in the audience explore, experiment with and play Machover's instruments. The opera itself incorporates recordings just made by the audience, along with musical contributions sent by participants on the Internet.

In the performance itself, participants play hyperinstruments, electronically enhanced instruments Machover has been developing since 1986. The team at MIT has designed a hyperinstrument for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a "sensor chair" for magicians Penn and Teller.

The interactive nature of The Brain Opera makes it an evolving piece of performance art. One of Machover's goals is to push the boundaries of how people experience music.


Watch the performance on Frontiers and try these activities:
  • Machover's hyperinstruments are high-tech devices. You can make music on low-tech instruments, like straw pipes and wine glasses.

  • Using your homemade instruments, try conducting a musical event that invites different musicians to perform music of their choice. Record their contributions and make a mix that includes pieces of music from each participating musician.

  • You can make musical "instruments" out of many items -- try blowing into an empty bottle or jug, plucking a rubber band guitar, using plastic kitchenware for drums, even bending thin plastic sheets to make a twangy, watery kind of sound.

  • In an interview with Scientific American, composer Tod Machover says: "There is a deep reason for interactivity. Works of art should be stimulating. They should wake people up rather than acting like a sedative. I hope that people will come out of The Brain Opera asking for more from their art." React to this statement. You can read the entire interview at

  • The group at the MIT Media Lab has been designing next-generation interactive experiences for music, plus totally new interactive toys like a "musical jacket" played by touching embroidery on the jacket and "squeezables," foam balls played by squeezing and stretching. The group is working on a "Toy Symphony" that will combine kids, technology and symphony orchestras. What musical toys would you like to design? For more on current and future projects at MIT, see

  • Bands from the Beach Boys to Phish and classical groups use the theremin, an electronic instrument popular in experimental musical circles. The theremin is played by waving one's hands near two metal antennas: one for pitch and the other for volume. To find out more and hear sound clips, visit ThereminWorld at


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.