Disabled Violinist Composes Music Using Brain Signals

Wednesday, 10 February 2016 - 3:34PM
Neuroscience
Wednesday, 10 February 2016 - 3:34PM
Disabled Violinist Composes Music Using Brain Signals
Rosemary Johnson was a violinist in the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, and was hailed as a future world-class musician until she suffered a devastating car crash in 1988, leaving her in a coma for seven months and extensive brain damage that eliminated her ability to speak and control her body movements. She hasn't been able to make music for 27 years, but a new technology developed by a team from Plymouth University has allowed her to compose music to be played in real time using only her mind and an EEG cap.

Using cutting-edge Brain Computer Music Interfacing software and an electrode cap that reads the electrical signals in the brain, the researchers connected her brain to a program that allows her to pick notes and musical phrases by focusing on different lights on a computer screen. She can compose the music in real time as it is played by live musicians, and even alter the volume and speed of a piece based on the intensity of her focus.

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"The great achievement of this project is that it is possible to perform music without being able to actually move," Professor Eduardo Miranda, director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth University, told The Telegraph. "She is essentially controlling another musician to play it for her. It's not yet possible to read thoughts but we can train people to use brain signals to control things."
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Three other patients from the same hospital have been trained to use the technology, and together they have formed their own musical quartet called the Paramusical Ensemble. Together, they work alongside four musicians from the Bergerson string quartet to compose music in real time, and have already recorded a piece for the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival later this month, called "Activating Memory."

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"This is a great means of transcending disability to offer individuals a unique experience of creating music with each other, and interacting with skilled musicians to create original compositions," said Julian O'Kelly, a research fellow at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, where the research is taking place. "In the case of Rosemary, the project illustrated the great potential this innovation could have for participants who may have once been gifted musicians, but now lack the physical abilities to engage in music making."
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Physicians and neuroscience experts are hopeful that this technology could improve brain damaged patients' quality of life immensely, and allow them to express their emotions after they've lost the ability to speak.

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"If this idea was developed it could have ramifications in all areas of someone's life," said Joel Eaton, a PhD candidate at Plymouth. "Potentially I can see the ability for someone to express musically how they are feeling again without their ability to move their fingers, to communicate with words."
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