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Writing Music Using Only Your Mind

Austrian researchers are testing technology that facilitates direct brain-to-page composition.
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Beethoven composed his most important work when he was deaf. But what if he—or any other composer—had an affliction that left them paralyzed? It is possible to write music without the use of one's hands and arms?

Twentieth-century British composer Frederick Delius managed this trick by dictating his compositions to an assistant, Eric Fenby. But a new study suggests his successors may have a far easier alternative.

Austrian researchers have demonstrated that, with the proper equipment, composers can now transmit their musical musings directly from the brain to the page.

"Twenty years ago, the idea of composing a piece of music using the power of the mind was unimaginable," said Gernot Müller-Putz of the Graz University of Technology, a co-author of the study. "Now, we can do it."

He and his colleagues, led by Andreas Pinegger, call this "the first step towards a music composing system for severely disabled people."

The study, published in the online journal PLoS One, featured 18 participants: 17 amateur musicians and one professional clarinetist and composer. With electrodes attached to their skull to pick up electroencephalogram signals from the brain, each sat in front of a computer that had been equipped with a sophisticated brain-computer interface, as well as music composition software.

If you find yourself limited by illness or injury, the ability to express your emotions in music could be a real godsend.

To oversimplify a bit, the interface works by having various symbols—usually letters, but in this case, musical notes—flash by in sequence. If participants focus on one such symbol when it lights up, it produces a slight but measurable change in their brain waves. Stay focused on it, and the computer realizes you want to mentally jot that one down—and so it does so.

Participants began by using this technology to mentally spell out two words: "Musik" (German for "music") and "Lizst" (as in the composer). They then mentally copied a short piece of music. Finally, they wrote some music of their own.

Their level of accuracy was quite impressive: On the copying tasks, they "wrote down" the correct letters or notes 88 percent of the time. This was reduced to 76 percent for the composition task, presumably due to the challenge of creating new sounds via this unusual method.

The numbers for the professional composer were even better: one hundred percent accuracy for spelling, nearly 94 percent for copying music, and 98 percent for his own new piece of music.

Not surprisingly, participants offered suggestions for improving the system, including the addition of a "pause" button. (Hey, creative people need time to gather their thoughts before committing them to "paper.") But all in all, they reported it "works efficiently and effectively," the researchers write. What's more, they enjoyed the experience.

And why wouldn't they? It sounds extremely cool. But the researchers have a serious goal in mind: to provide "a tool for entertainment and, even more important, self-expression for severely disabled people."

Indeed, if you find yourself limited by illness or injury, the ability to express your emotions in music could be a real godsend.