Soul Music: Understanding the Brutality of the Human Body Through Sound

Jeffrey Sobieraj, Medical School

Advisors: Matthew Thompson, School of Music, Theatre & Dance and Joel Howell, Medical School

When I was in my teens and early 20s, I suffered from health anxiety. Throughout the years, I would engage in repetitive “checking behaviors,” including prodding at lymph nodes, taking my pulse, and generally observing any minute change in bodily function. As a result, I visited the doctor’s office on numerous occasions to assuage my fears of heart disease, lymphoma, colon cancer, etc.  

When I worked as a research coordinator at the San Francisco VA, one study required veterans to have their brachial artery flow measured via doppler ultrasound. I would record the velocity of flow after having temporarily disrupted it with a tourniquet, and upon hearing the blood rush through the patient’s vessels, it produced the most amazing whooshing sounds. They were rhythmic, cadenced, pulsing – they were musical. I had the idea to create a piece of music recorded solely from the sounds of the human body. What could be more beautiful than the music of our bodies? We see and learn from the people around us daily, but we never get to hear them.  

Largely inspired by the American Minimalism movement of the 50s and 60s, notably the works of John Cage, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Julius Eastman to name a few, I set out to share my story of health anxiety by way of the hidden sounds my body produces. In pairing visual images of health anxiety behaviors, known as “checking behaviors,” with a musical composition recorded solely from sounds my body produces, one may learn about my experience through image, but also, one may experience my story through the sound of my body. It is a horror film of sorts, as I excavate the brutality of the incessant prodding, poking, scratching, and violence one can inflict on oneself to understand oneself. It’s called “Soul Music.” 


With the assistance of a University of Michigan film student graduate (Taylor Kelly), we filmed visuals of me engaging in “checking” behaviors associated with health anxiety (e.g., palpating various body parts, monitoring pulse and breathing, etc.). We paired these visuals with a musical composition based entirely on sounds recorded from the human body. With an Eko smart stethoscope, I recorded sounds from all quadrants of the heart, lungs, and abdomen. With a doppler ultrasound, I recorded sounds from the radial artery, dorsalis-pedis artery, carotid artery, and brachial artery. And finally, using a standard recording microphone, I recorded the following sounds: urination, knuckles cracking, coughing, swallowing, mouth breathing, tongue movements, teeth grinding, palpation of lymph nodes and abdomen, skin scratching, hair tussling, eyes blinking, and whistling. Working with a University of Michigan music school student (Adam Julian Saifuddin), we composed a score for the film visuals with only the aforementioned sounds recorded from the human body with the use of Logic Pro X music editing software. Funding was provided through ArtsEngine (specifically the Thompson Prize, provided by Dr. Matthew Thompson) and University of Michigan Capstone funds. 


We created a 4.5 minute short film documenting the brutality of health anxiety – and mental health disorders at large – through visuals of “checking” behaviors accompanied by a musical soundtrack composed solely of sounds recorded from the human body. The film is split into two parts. Part one demonstrates the cognitive and physical burden mental health diagnoses can impose on the individual. It is isolating, claustrophobic, and frantic, set in a doctor’s office. Part two represents an acceptance of the condition. The scene is outdoors, with vibrant colors and images of nature. You may expect the music to follow suit, but it does not. Rather, it builds in its suffocating intensity, meant to contrast the visuals. It ends with a visual of me from the White Coat Ceremony, accepting my position as a future physician. This image is meant to depict the ways in which I was able to overcome my health anxiety, by keeping the enemy as close as possible. However, the intensity of the music reaches its peak, to illustrate the driving theme: anxiety is energy, and energy is neither created nor destroyed, only transferred. The health anxiety may dissipate, but the reverberating anxious energy lives on and finds its new host.  

Conclusion (~300-500 words): 

In short, I sought out to share a personal account of how anxiety can manifest, consume, and persist. We have seen these accounts throughout art history, but thus far, it has not been portrayed through recorded sounds of the human body. My hope is to share and connect with others who may have similar experiences and inspire fellow students and members of the medical community to translate their lives through radical art. 

Reflection/Impact Statement (~300-500 words): 

This project ultimately served as a reminder that with any project, whether artistic or otherwise, the outcome is often remarkably different than the initial intention. After conceiving the idea of creating a musical composition solely recorded from sounds of the human body, I intended it to be a bright, melodic musical piece without film accompaniment. Through collaboration with my mentors, Dr. Matthew Thompson and Dr. Joel Howell, as well as my student collaborators, I was pushed to expand the limitations of this project to incorporate meaning beyond the inherent novelty. To this end, I considered reflections on identity, from the perspective of a member of the LGBTQ or POC community, but ultimately was drawn to the duality of actions inflicted on the body versus involuntary actions of the body. I was told by many from the start that I would likely not fulfill my idealized version of this project given how rigorous medical school is and how lofty my aspirations were. Yet, I am proud to have completed not only the idealized initial version, but a much more comprehensive, in-depth final version that serves as a personal and creative peak of my career. My advice to others would be to follow your interests to any end despite what others might tell you. 

This project resulted from an Art/Sci Student Residency with Dr. Matthew Thompson.