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How Brainwaves Allow Paralyzed Musicians To Continue Playing


At the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London last year, a quartet of musicians made music again. One was a violinist, severely disabled in a car accident; another had a degenerative disease. None of them had enough control of their bodies to hold an instrument or even to speak. They wore caps, which read their brains' electrical impulses. Alongside them, four proxy musicians translated those impulses into an ever-changing melody. We gathered Eduardo Miranda and Elisa Bergersen to talk about the project. He harnessed the technology and she served as a proxy, playing the viola. I asked her exactly how - I asked exactly how everything worked.

EDUARDO MIRANDA: We developed an interface that if someone wants to select, let's say, a melody that sounds, you know, is low or fast or whatever, then that person looks and then that choice is made.

WERTHEIMER: What you appear to have done is you have discovered a way for them to choose a musical phrase from a choice of about four different ones. As I understand it, they are not imagining music in their minds.


WERTHEIMER: They are choosing a piece of music.

MIRANDA: They are choosing - exactly. They choose what they see in front of them. Of course, because they are musicians and they have been - you know, some of them more professional than others - but they understand what they see because we provide little musical scores for them. So the choices they make are informed choices. They know what those things are going to sound like.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Ms. Bergersen, you carry out the instruction that is sent to you by the computer through this complicated process of electronic signals.

ELISA BERGERSEN: Yep, that's right.

WERTHEIMER: Now, how does - what is the experience like?

BERGERSEN: Well, each member of the quartet is paired up with a partner, and the four partners are the four patients. So what I see is what I'm being fed, obviously, by my musical partner. So the experience is very different from playing, let's say, a written score on a piece of paper as you would do normally because you never know what you're going to get. We did know the excerpts of music or the phrases of music that Eduardo had already composed previously. But we didn't know in which order we were going to get them or how many times we were going to get one of them.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) So you're sort of doing a very fast sight-read of something that you've see before but you have no idea what it's going to sound like in combination with the other parts.

BERGERSEN: That's right, yeah. And an actual fact - it's a more intense sight-read than normal because even if you're sight-reading a piece of music, you normally have 40 or 60 or 80 bars on one sheet. And even if you've only seen that sheet for two seconds, you can flick your eyes down the page and you can see how intense the music gets or parts where you may be resting. You know, you can get an idea of the piece even just by casting your eyes down the sheets whereas with this you can only see, let's say, two or four bars at a time, and you know nothing after that point.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) So if I were standing there with the doctors and nurses in the back rows, I suppose, I would have seen four people with instruments and four people wearing funny hats and looking at computers.

BERGERSEN: Yes, correct.

WERTHEIMER: How did the audience respond to that?

BERGERSEN: It was really emotional. It was really emotional because, as Eduardo said, you know, these four patients, they do have a musical background. They were all musically interested or experienced in some way. So for the audience to see them being able to perform, as it were, it was really moving. It was really - it was really emotional and there were a few tears (laughter) that I witnessed.


WERTHEIMER: Now, Dr. Miranda, you - you wrote the piece of music.

MIRANDA: Yes, I did. Yeah, it's a...

WERTHEIMER: When I mean you wrote, you wrote the original combination of phrases. right?

MIRANDA: It's like a Rubik's cube, you know...

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

MIRANDA: ...The way I designed it. I composed hundreds of those small phrases, and I laid a kind of a scaffold where those musical phrases would fall and then for each of those little beams, so to speak, in the scaffold, there were several options. So I more or less know what's going to happen, but this piece has millions of combinations, so it will always sound different.

WERTHEIMER: Have they surprised you, your disabled musicians? Have they surprised you with what they do with the bits that you gave them?

MIRANDA: Yes, they did. I think the thing that surprised me most is how quick they got to the idea. You know, I was thinking, oh, no, I'll have to explain this many times and I have to rehearse, I have to practice and so on and so on. It was nothing like that.

We just got in. We just put the system in front of them and they already started doing it. Somehow, we enabled them to communicate emotions within themselves, and I think that was what moved us, Elisa was saying. You know, we were all moved when we saw this happening 'cause it was really magical.

WERTHEIMER: Professor Eduardo Miranda of Plymouth University in the U.K. and Elisa Bergersen of the Bergersen Quartet, thank you both.

BERGERSEN: Thank you.

MIRANDA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.