For the First Time in 27 Years, This Disabled Violinist Composed Music Using Her Mind

February 9, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

EEG machine
Photo credit: Baburov/wikimedia (CC by SA 4.0)

Welcome to the field of music neurotechnology.

After a devastating car crash 27 years ago, Rosemary Johnson fell into a seven-month coma and suffered from severe brain damage that took away most of her ability to talk and move. She was a member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and a promising violinist, but the accident robbed her of her ability to play and compose music.

Now, software developed over 10 years as part of a program led by Plymouth University is changing the game. For the first time in 27 years, Johnson was able to compose music and also have it played to her in real time by a professional string quartet. Quite incredible.

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Johnson was hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap which reads electrical information from the brain. This enabled her to select musical notes and phrases with her mind just by focusing on different colored lights on a computer screen.

"The first time we tried with Rosemary we were in tears,” Eduardo Miranda from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth University told The Telegraph. “We could feel the joy coming from her at being able to make music. It was perfect because she can read music very well and make a very informed choice."

Three other patients were also involved with the trial, and they’ve each been able to compose music for one of the musicians in the Bergesen string quartet. The musicians are able to play the music live for the patients as they slightly alter and add to the music in real time.

Before using this brain-reading software, Johnson was only able to play a few chords on the piano with the help of her mother. Now, she has regained the ability to communicate her compositions.

"The great achievement of this project is that it is possible to perform music without being able to actually move. She is essentially controlling another musician to play it for her," said Miranda. "It’s not yet possible to read thoughts but we can train people to use brain signals to control things."

Together, Johnson and the other musicians call themselves The Paramusical Ensemble. They’re set to play their first recorded piece of music, called Activating Memory, at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth later this month.

This impressive software shows just how far scientists have come in the endeavor to restore the disabled with their lost abilities, and it will be thrilling to see how this burgeoning field of music neurotechnology evolves.

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