Violinist Rosemary Johnson at approximately aged 17 CREDIT: PAUL GROVER
Violinist Rosemary Johnson at approximately aged 17 CREDIT: PAUL GROVER

There’s nothing as devastating to a musician as being robbed of the ability to make music, but that is exactly what happened to Rosemary Johnson, 27 years ago. The 23-year old talented violinist was a member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and had a bright future as a world class musician when a devastating car crash led into a 7-month coma for her.

Her life was saved, but Rosemary suffered a serious head injury that robbed her of her speech and movement. She could no longer enjoy music as she had done before and only with her mother’s assistance could she pick out a few piano chords. However, technology has given Rosemary a second chance at a musical life.

Musical notes appear on the monitor
Musical notes appear on the monitor

But now, thanks to cutting edge technology, she is creating music again, using just the power of her mind. In an extraordinary 10-year project led by the Plymouth University and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, her brain has been wired up to a computer using Brain Computer Music Interfacing software.

By focussing on different coloured lights on a computer screen she can select notes and phrases to be played and alter a composition as it is performed by live musicians. The intensity of her mental focus can even change the volume and speed of the piece. Via Telegraph

Rosemary, now 50, is finally able to create music after decades of near-silence. Needless to say, the experience has been emotional for her. So emotional, in fact, that the scientists involved in the program were highly affected too.

Ground-breaking musical performance by severely motor-impaired people to be premiered at Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival CREDIT: PLYMOUTH UNIVERSITY
Ground-breaking musical performance by severely motor-impaired people to be premiered at Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival CREDIT: PLYMOUTH UNIVERSITY

“It was really very moving,” said Professor Eduardo Miranda, Composer and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth University.

“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. Via Telegraph

The major achievement of the project is that people can now perform music even when they are unable to hold an instrument or sing. The musician is able to communicate the musical notes to another musician, who then plays it on his or her behalf. This has nothing to do with mind reading, however; it’s the brain signals that are observed and translated accurately.

The technological breakthrough has been life-changing for the violinist. According to Mary, Rosemary’s 80-year old mother, the project had brought new hope for her daughter.

Miss Johnson, Clive Wells, Richard Bennett and Steve Thomas CREDIT: PLYMOUTH UNIVERSITY
Miss Johnson, Clive Wells, Richard Bennett and Steve Thomas CREDIT: PLYMOUTH UNIVERSITY

“Music is really her only motivation,” she said. “I take her to the grand piano in the hospital and she can only really play a few chords, but that was the only time she shows any interest. She doesn’t really enjoy anything else.

“But this has been so good for her. I can tell she has really enjoyed it. When she performed I went to the hospital and that is the first time I have heard her make music, other than the piano chords for a long, long time.” Via Telegraph

When using the technology, an EEG cap full of electrodes is put on Rosemary’s head to pick up electrical information from her brain. Using a musical composition by Prof Miranda, Rosemary gets to select pieces of melody at certain times of the performance. She is then paired with a violinist that views that musical phrases on a screen as Rosemary selects them and plays them in real time.

The same is done with three other patients, each paired with a violinist, forming a complete string quartet. The technology provides musicians facing disability the chance to keep creating music and interacting with other skilled musicians to create original compositions.

The Bergerson quartet
The Bergerson quartet

Three other disabled patients who live at the hospital have also been trained to use the technology, and have been working alongside four able-bodied musicians from the Bergersen String quartet who play the music in real time as it is selected.

They are called The Paramusical Ensemble, and they have already recorded a piece of music entitled Activating Memory which will be heard for the first time at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth later this month. Via Telegraph

Technology is definitely doing them a world of good by giving the gift of music back to them.

Featured Image: Paul Grover

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