Your brain on Beethoven’s Ninth

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The Rubin Museum’s “Brainwave” festival challenges our notions of sound and time


  • Chris Rose guiding a participant after listening to "9 Beet Stretch." Photo: Asya Danilova

  • Listeners enjoying "9 Beet Stretch" in the Rubin Museum's theater space. Photo: Asya Danilova

On a recent Friday night at the Rubin Museum, warm red light and cool hypnotic sound flooded the theater space. Bean bag chairs and yoga cushions were scattered across the floor. A handful of listeners sat upright, eyes closed; others released into peaceful savasanas on the floor as “9 Beet Stretch,” a rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony stretched to 24 hours with no pitch distortions by Scandinavian sound artist Leif Inge, washed over them. The mood, to this reporter, was very TGIF. Or perhaps it’s Saturday morning?

That’s the thing about “9 Beet Stretch,” part of the Rubin’s “Brainwave: The Future is Fluid” festival, which runs through April. Like the festival itself, the trippy soundscape is designed to make participants question basic premises of memory, perception, free will and even destiny. Curated by neuroscientist and author David Eagleman, the festival’s lectures, discussions and sonic experiences tap into everything from the science of nostalgia to a Deepak Chopra-led session on the elastic mind and the healing self.

But in a place where the experience of time — for many New Yorkers — is that there’s simply never enough of it, how can Brainwave help, heal and educate?

“I hope for people to come into the museum with a particular state of mind, and leave with another state of mind. One that gives them a greater sense of awareness that more things are possible than they thought,” said Tim McHenry, the Rubin’s director of public programs and the mastermind behind the festival.

Case in point: participants who devoted at least two hours listening to “9 Beet Stretch” were able to track the shift in their state of mind — literally — in a neuro-research component of the evening. Chris Rose, a graduate student from New York University’s C-Lab, under the supervision of neuroscientist and lab leader Moran Cerf, was on hand to test how the brain regards time differently before and after listening to “9 Beet Stretch” through the use of time-based computer games and an EEG headset.

“How we experience time is also related to memory, it can also be related to our emotional experience,” said Rose. “It’s very much about where our head’s at.”

Though conclusive results have yet to be tallied, Rose explained that the test looked at both objective time, or the concrete number of seconds or minutes that have passed, and subjective time, or the perception of time, i.e. how it flies during engaging activities and drags when we’re bored. The music, which had elements of both chanting and a beautiful film score, would alter the perception of time accordingly.

Abstract? Perhaps, but most people already have a sense of time’s fluidity, suggested McHenry. Activities that involve repetition, whether chanting, vocalizing a daily mantra or even a tactile practice like kitting, create a rhythm, which is a way of marking time, explained McHenry.

“We’ve discovered, that, say, people go into the Tibetan Buddhist shrine room upstairs, or even if you sat in front of the Mona Lisa for more than the usual two minutes and twenty seconds, something would start working on you. But you’re doing the working. It’s not a passive experience, because we’re calibrated to reinterpret, so you start registering different types of consciousness over time.”

Inge, the sound artist behind “9 Beet Stretch” has heard his piece played for audiences around the world, but this was the first time the 24-hour listening experience incorporated a neuro-research component. For Inge, it was a way to quantify what he already understood by heart.

“I’ve been inside this concert for many hours. My experience is when you go out in the city, the sound is following. You hear the ambiance of the city — are they playing “9 Beet Stretch? A car breaks, and suddenly it sounds like the piece.”

Inge notes that part of what makes the experience work is that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is so widely performed. Many listeners bring preconceived notions about what the music will sound like and then experience something sonically different when they hear the elongated choral suspensions, progressions and movements. The stretchy sound had a way of sticking to each moment, and (at least for this reporter) the unexpectedly slower pace made life feel wonderfully adagio, if only for a few moments.

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