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Human Made Stories

Music of the Mind

All Rosemary Johnson ever dreamt of was becoming a professional Violinist. In 1988, Rosemary was involved in a car accident. She suffered a devastating head injury, robbing her of speech and movement. Now, twenty-eight years on, she is learning to make music again, using only the power of her mind.

Rosemary Johnson

All Rosemary Johnson ever dreamt of was becoming a professional Violinist.
As fourth violin of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra at twenty-two, not only had she fulfilled her ambition, but many believe she was poised to become world class.
 
Then, in 1988, Rosemary was involved in a car accident. She suffered a devastating head injury, robbing her of speech and movement. Although Rosemary was forced to come to terms with the fact that her career as a musician was over, she never abandoned hope that one day she might once more play the violin.
 
Now, twenty-eight years on, she is learning to make music again, using only the power of her mind.

Thanks to an extraordinary ten-year project led by the Plymouth University and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, Rosemary’s brain has been wired up to a computer using Brain Computer Music Interfacing software. With a combination of thought and retina control, she is able to select notes and phrases to be played and alter a composition as it is performed by live musicians. She wears an EEG cap furnished with electrodes which can read electrical impulses from her brain. These instructions are sent instantly to a member of the string quartet who views the musical phrases on a screen. Rosemary can focus her thoughts to affect the intensity, timbre and tempo of the piece. 
 
There’s no doubt that the project has been emotionally rewarding for all those who have been involved. Professor Eduardo Miranda, the man at the forefront of the project, describes his experience: “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”.

 

Just what this has meant to Rosemary herself, now 50 years old, is best illustrated in the recent performance in which Rosemary was reunited with her old friend and fellow member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra string section, Alison Balfour Paul. They took to the stage alongside one another for the first time in nearly three decades as Alison became Rosemary's surrogate violin player.

Music of the Mind
Music of the Mind

“When I met Rosie for the first time, something clicked. It is very interesting working with her. Because she is a classically trained musician, I don’t have to ask her too many questions, through the technology we are almost instantly working in a realm of musical communication. Working with her is helping us to develop and shape this technology. It’s a wonderful blend of Science and creativity” 

Professor Miranda

Music of the Mind
Music of the Mind
Music of the Mind

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Victor Hugo

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

Music of the Mind
Music of the Mind

'I felt honoured to be doing this with her, to be her sound, her music, her violin and to have her next to me again was wonderful, really wonderful.’

Alison Balfour Paul

The breakthrough technology is in its relative infancy. As it develops, it could provide the means for all sorts of patients to express how they are feeling without the ability to move or communicate with words. It could grant them the power, and joy, of expressing themselves through music.

For Rosemary, this is more than therapy. Music is her only motivation; it occupies her every waking thought now, just as it did back in 1988. Brain Computer Music Interfacing has opened up new possibilities to express herself creatively and make connections that were not possible before.
 
Rosemary and Eduardo's story is one of friendship, innovation and the brilliance of the human mind. But above all, it's a about the power of human spirit.
 
In 2017, Rosemary is to receive an MBE in recognition of her services to music.