What would you do if your heartbeat sounded like Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets?

The driving, spikey rhythm of Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets is probably not the most comforting sound to hear through a stethoscope. A UK scientist, Elaine Chew is analysing the heartbeat patterns of people with arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat – and turning them into classical music, in what she hopes may become an important diagnostic tool for doctors.

Pianist and scientist Elaine Chew. Photo © Brian Morri

Chew, who is a Professor of Digital Media at Queen Mary University of London and an accomplished pianist, is heading an international team seeking to understand whether musical representation of heartbeat patterns could be used to help doctors and medical professionals identify different subtypes of arrhythmia. The team includes three students at Harvard, Ashwin Krishna, Daniel Soberanes, and Matthew Ybarra.

The project, which was presented at the British Science Festival in Brighton on September 8, takes electrocardiogram data and translates the information using music notation, which then becomes the basis for new compositions, which accurately reproduce the rhythms of the arrhythmic heartbeats. The performance of these compositions will allow doctors and other people who haven’t experienced arrhythmia themselves to gain a more visceral understanding of the condition.

The Music of Arrhythmia from Elaine Chew on Vimeo.

“Once the heartbeat is represented in a musical score, it can be used to find patterns,” Chew told the Daily Mail. “Right now they don’t relate them to musical patterns. It’s not part of doctors’ training. But it is part of every musician’s training. We notice timing.”

“The reason I came up with this idea is because I was an atrial fibrillation patient myself,” Chew said in an article published on the Queen Mary University of London’s website. “I was about to have my ablation procedure, and when the senior registrar heard I worked in digital music, he told me about a quiz he had organised for his cardiology colleagues.”

“He said he played different types of electronic music of varying tempos to them, and they had to guess the type of arrhythmia that the music most resembled,” she explained. “And so that got me thinking. After my surgery, I requested my own ECG data from the consultant, and started my analysis.”

Chew and her team have already created an Arrhythmia Suite, of music based on the rhythms of irregular heartbeats.

Chew told the Daily Mail that your heartbeat resembling pretty much any piece of music would be cause for worry. “If it was Beethoven’s Fifth, for instance, it would be very bad,” she said. “You would be dying.”


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