Brain-computer interface creates music by power of thought

Technical proficiency with an instrument has, with the exception of Guitar Hero virtuosos and anarcho-punk from the 1970s, often been a stumbling block for the less musically gifted.

However scientists have developed a method in which subjects can produce music without having to master barre chords on the guitar, through the use of a computer based music programme to interact directly with a patient via thought alone.

The device has been developed by composer Eduardo Miranda who has been working with computer scientists at the University of Essex to enable patients with severe physical disabilities to tap into the powers of music production for therapeutic reasons.

“When I realized the potential of a musical BCI for the wellbeing of severely disabled people, I couldn’t leave the idea alone,” said Miranda to the Nature journal, “Now I can’t separate this work from my activities as a composer.”

According to Miranda one area this could be of particular use is with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

While there is evidence that participation in musical activities can be highly beneficial in the treatment of the disease, many sufferers are unable to partake in anything other than listening to music.

Recent advancements in brain-computer interfaces have meant that signals from the brain can be detected through electroencephalography (EEG) systems, much smaller and cheaper than MRI scans which were previously used, making the technology easier for patients to use.

The system works by teaching the user to associate brain signal with specific tasks by repeatedly representing an audio, visual or tactile stimulus and getting the user to focus on it – which send an EEG signal to the processor.

Patients are then able to push several designated buttons on screen by directing their attention towards it, triggering the preset tones which can effectively be selected in the way that is analogous to that of a pianist selecting from the keys of a piano.

Of course, in the end, like all musical instruments it takes practice to achieve greater expertise with the system, with one of the researchers stating that “the more one practices the better one becomes”.