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Four musicians, who are severely physically disabled and unable to talk or move, are using cutting-edge technology to create music using just the power of their minds. The Paramusical Ensemble have worked with the University of Plymouth and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in the UK to develop the system, which allows for real-time composition of notated music.
Using ground-breaking computer technology, visual stimuli can be registered, processed and interpreted as a playable score. Short phrases of music are displayed on a screen next to a corresponding flashing light source. As a member of the Paramusical Ensemble looks at a particular light source, electrical impulses in the brain’s visual cortex are registered via an EEG cap, relaying the selected musical fragment to a display screen.
The system also allows the composer to control other aspects of the music, Dr Julian O’Kelly of the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability said in an interview with the BBC. “It also picks up the intensity of their focus,” O’Kelly explains. “It’s not just an on or off switch, they can control volume [dynamics] too.”
Each member of the Paramusical Ensemble is paired with a musician who plays the fragments of music as they are relayed to them by their partner. One recent collaboration with a string quartet was particularly important for one member of the Paramusical Ensemble, Rosemary Johnston, who was a violinist with the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, until she was paralysed in a car accident in 1988. For Rosemary’s mother, Mary, the performance was a very moving experience. “It was really exciting - I could tell Rosemary was enjoying it, and anything that makes her happy makes me happy,” she said.