Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1997-1998 index

Distributed June 2, 1998
Contact: Carol Morton


Musical mappings of the heartbeat show healthy hearts make best music

The mathematical structure of the varied time between heartbeats provides pleasing melody and formed the melodic basis for original piano composition by undergraduate Zachary Goldberger, who will discuss his project May 23 at a Brown commencement forum showcasing the research of six graduating seniors

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- From heartache to heartthrob, the human heart has inspired a lot of music, but Brown University senior Zachary Goldberger may be the first to use heartbeats as the melodic template for composition.

His heartsongs began with actual heartbeats from 15 people, initially recorded with a Holter monitor, a pocket-sized electrocardiogram recorder worn for a full day that measures the precise time between heartbeats. Next, Goldberger and his colleagues at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Boston University translated the subtly varied time intervals between heartbeats into integers and then mapped the integers onto a musical scale.

More often then not, heartbeats produced pleasing melodies rather than discordant or jarring noise. Goldberger found a "dance-like plasticity and variability" in the beats, which he attributes to the inherent complex mathematical structure in the time intervals from beat to beat, known as a fractal, which describes a wide range of natural phenomena. Pathological hearts lose this fractal nature, while healthy hearts fluctuate more widely in time and melody.

Goldberger released a CD of "Heartsongs" two years ago (under the professional name Zach Davids), and he helped create an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science that translates a visitor's heartbeat into notes (see

More recently, Goldberger presented his project as part of a Brown undergraduate lecture series that showcases the research of six graduating seniors.