Brain Damaged Violinist Makes Music with Bergersen String Quartet, First Time in 26 Years

By Steve Nagel on Mar 02, 2016 08:48 AM EST

The painful truth of being a musician is that, like any athlete, physical limitations and perils loom around every corner. For once-rising stars like Rosemary Johnson, who in 1988 had her career as a violinist for the Welsh National Opera Orchestra cut short (after suffering brain damage from a brutal car accident), the fragility of the pastime was made especially clear. Still, despite the loss of mobility and speech, technology has recently been able to restore a portion of the music handling she had once mastered. With the help of the Bergersen String Quartet, a team from the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability and Plymouth University in the United Kingdom has discovered a way for Rosemary to make music again… using her brainwaves.

According to Professor Eduardo Miranda, composer and director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth University, there was no better candidate for the experiment than a musician. Even better was a former virtuoso, who, although physically unable to hammer out more than a few chords at the piano, remained mentally adept. Miranda remarked, "It was perfect because she can read music very well and make a very informed choice."

The importance of music in Rosemary's life extended well into her disability. Rosemary's mother said, "Music is really her only motivation. 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."

The culmination of a 10-yr. project by the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability and Plymouth University, the Brain Computer Music Interfacing software was designed as a means of reading a patient's brainwaves and translating that into readable music. Once Rosemary was connected to the revolutionary software, the music was performed in front of her, in real time, by the Bergersen String Quartet.

Compared to a "musical game", the new technology allows Rosemary to select musical phrases at certain times of the performance by focusing on different colored lights on a computer screen. As she focuses more intensely, she can even change the volume and speed of the piece.

Those who observed Rosemary were happy to report that she was smiling during the experience. Her mother added, "This has been so good for her. I can tell she has really enjoyed it."

The group of impaired patients who have been given this unique opportunity are called the Paramusical Ensemble. They can be seen below performing a piece called "Activating Memory" (which was composed by Prof. Eduardo Miranda):

Paramusical Ensemble from cinema iloobia on Vimeo.

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TagsNeuroscience of Music, Bergersen String Quartet, disabled, Computer, Car Accident

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