Neuroscience Breathing New Life Into Brain-Damaged Musicians

Brain damage can take so much from a thriving and intellectually gifted human being and turn their once bright lives upside down in the worst way possible. As a member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, young Rosemary Johnson’s life was nothing short of luminous. She was a thriving violinist in her early 20s when a car crash shattered all her dreams. It took away her ability to play music, as well as her speech and movement.

Source: Telegraph

For 27 years, Rosemary has seemingly been stuck inside her own head with no way of being able to express her extreme passion for music as she once had been able to.

But thanks to neuroscience technology, the Plymouth University, and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, she now can.

Using an electroencephalography cap, the patient’s thoughts (via electrical activity) can actually be recorded when they focus on a pattern of different colored lights on a computer screen. By doing that, they are able to actually pick out and even move musical notes and phrases using their own brain waves. They can even dictate the volume of a piece as well. The computer is able to build the composer and feed it to performing musicians who are able to play the music made by the individual.

An electroencephalogram happens to be a recording of brain activity that includes very small sensors that attach to the scalp that are able to pick up even the smallest electrical signals that the brain cells produce when they send messages.

Source: Telegraph

A professor and composer at Plymouth University, Eduardo Miranda, said that everyone was in tears when they had tried the project with Rosemary for the first time.

“We could feel the joy coming from her at being able to make music,” he said. “It was perfect because she can read music very well and make a very informed choice.”

This project has been 10 wonderful years in the making.

Rosemary isn’t the only one benefiting from this amazing technology, either – three other disabled musicians are also being trained to use this special software and have been performing with the Bergeson String Quartet who perform their composures back to the patients in real time. Their collaboration even has a kick-ass name: The Paramusical Ensemble.

A piece called “Activating Memory” was included in the documentary about the project that will be featured at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth on Feb. 27.

Rosemary’s mother Mary also expressed joy over her daughter being able to practice music after so many decades of being unable to.

“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.”

The power that music as on the brain is so unbelievably impactful, especially when music is a person’s entire life. The philosopher Nietzsche once said that, “We listen to music with our muscles,” indicating this is something we feel and experience – not simply hear.

Music can trigger forgotten memories from the past and reflect feelings from any part in time. The emotional power that comes with music is vast, especially for Rosemary.

“I can tell she really enjoyed it,” Mary concluded about her daughter’s experience. “When she performed to the hospital and that was the first I have heard her make music, other than the piano chords for a long, long time.”