Disabled violinist makes music with her brainwaves

When she was 22, violinist Rosemary Johnson was in a car accident, which left her in a coma for seven months. Previously a member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, the accident means that Johnson can no longer speak and has severely limited movement. Despite this, thanks to cutting-edge technology and a ten-year project from the University of Plymouth and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability, Johnson has made her first music in 27 years using her brainwaves.

Disabled violinist makes music with her brainwaves

By wearing an EEG cap that reads electrical information from the brain, the musician can select notes by focusing on different coloured lights on the computer screen. Musicians are even able to change the volume and speed of the piece by adjusting the “intensity” of the mental focus.  A proxy-musician then reads the musical phrases off the screen and plays in real time, on the patient’s behalf.

“The great achievement of this project is that it is possible to perform music without being able to actually move,” professor Eduardo Miranda, composer and 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 was really very moving. The first time we tried with Rosemary we were in tears. 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.”

Johnson and three other patients from the hospital have been trained to use the software, and have together formed a quartet – The Paramusical Ensemble – with their musical thoughts played in real time by four members of the Bergersen String Quartet.  They have already recorded a first track, entitled “Activating Memory”, which will be performed at Plymouth’s Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival this month.

Joel Eaton, a PhD student at Plymouth University, told The Telegraph: “One of the key things about this system is that not only does it give a user the interaction and control of an instrument, it allows them to interact with each other.”

“If this idea was developed, it could have ramifications in all areas of someone’s life. 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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Image: Eduardo Miranda/Plymouth University

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