Paul Wolber: The Music of an MRI

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MRI’s are famous for being cramped and noisy. But Paul Wolber discovered something else about an MRI that took him to a very different place.

I recently had some MRI pictures taken of my brain. And lest you worry, the only finding was that I have one and am no longer allowed to sing the Scarecrow’s song from “The Wizard of Oz.” Still, I didn’t know that beforehand. I approached the scan with some trepidation about the results and the possibility of claustrophobia when my head was immobilized in a mask-shaped antenna and placed inside a narrow tunnel at the center of a high-field magnet.

However, as a card-carrying nerd I have some understanding of how MRI imaging works and why the machine makes such ear plug-penetrating, repetitive noises as it creates its images. So I decided to close my eyes, concentrate on the sounds and try to figure out what the machine was doing as it progressed through different pulse sequences.

Then an amazing thing happened. About a minute into the scan, I realized that the sounds were music. It was weird, like a drum solo played on electric guitar through a maximum effects box, but it was definitely music. The scan flew by and I was a bit sad when it ended.

Afterwards, I told the MRI technician about my experience and asked her whether anyone else heard the noises as music. Her face broke into a huge smile as she explained to me that other people did and that there were many YouTube videos devoted to “MRI music." When I got back home, I checked some of them out. They ranged from someone programming an MRI machine to play the opening bars of “Smoke on the Water” to using samples of the noises as inputs to a synthesizer. It was a hidden world of music that I’d not known existed.


So I went in for a medical test and ended up learning that this crazy, muddled world still provides wonders and unexpected music. One only has to listen.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Wolber.

Paul Wolber is a scientist and technical manager in Silicon Valley's biotech industry.