Music of the Human Heart May Hold Clues to Healing

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Graves the Jazz Drummer

Hear Graves perform solo:

Hear Graves perform with saxophonist John Zorn, recorded live in New York City in September 2003:

Listen: 'Know Your Place,' from the CD 'Grand Unification'

Listen: 'Looping Journeys,' from the CD '50th Birthday Celebration, Volume Two'

Heart Sounds

Hear a heartbeat Graves has manipulated on his computer, speeding it up and slowing it down:

Listen: Heartbeat Sounds

In the 1960s and '70s, jazz drummer Milford Graves played with Albert Ayler, Paul Bley and others in the New York avant-garde. These days he's still a musician, but he also spends a great deal of time exploring how music can help heal the human heart. Some doctors say the research Graves is doing in his basement in Queens is just as significant as work being done in medical laboratories.

Milford Graves as pictured on the cover of his CD 'Grand Unification'

Milford Graves, as pictured on the cover of his 1998 CD Grand Unification (on the Tzadik label). Tzadik hide caption

toggle caption Tzadik

Graves listens to the heart rhythms of volunteers using a host of diagnostic tools, including a custom-built stethoscope and sensors that pick up the electrical impulses that cause the human heart to beat. Software then parses the data, allowing Graves to focus on the micro-rhythms within a single heartbeat.

Graves says a healthy heart — like a good jazz drummer — emphasizes the triplets (1-2-3, 1-2-3), not the eighth notes (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4).

"If you've got a stiff heartbeat, that means your blood is like 'squirt, squirt.' Not a nice flow," Graves says. "I want to look at that and see what's happening."

If Graves thinks something is wrong, he'll manipulate the sound, perhaps by speeding it up or slowing it down on his computer. He'll then use this counter-rhythm to try to nudge the heart back toward a more normal pattern. The manipulated sounds are put back into the volunteer's body, either through acupuncture needles or through their ears.

Harvard Medical School professor Baruch Krauss says what Graves does isn't so different from what emergency physicians try to do for patients with abnormal heartbeats. Krauss stresses that Graves' work isn't ready for patient therapies, but he calls it "exciting, extremely original and innovative."

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