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Surprising Science

This String Quartet Was Composed by Brainwaves

A brain-computer music interface system allows four patients to compose their own string quartet.
Brainwave quartet (CINEMA ILOOBIA)

This is a fascinating project in which neurology and music collide in a moving way. (Oliver Sacks would’ve loved it.) It’s about the creation of a string-quartet composition called “Activating Memory,” and its creators are called the “Paramusical Ensemble.” Each of its members is a severely motor-impaired individual at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, England.

The composers generated all of the parts using nothing but brainwaves. They were connected via electroencephalogram electrodes to a brain-computer music interface (BCMI) system that allowed each person to compose their part on-the-fly by selecting from among four phrases for live musicians to play — really, it’s as much a performance by the composers as it is by the musicians.

The project was led by composer Eduardo Reck Miranda for the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) at Plymouth University.

It’s beautiful to watch these patients have the opportunity to be creative and interact with each others in a way their impairments don’t ordinarily allow. And given how acutely music reaches to the emotional areas of our brains, it’s understandable why researchers were careful to keep making sure it wasn’t just to much for the composers to handle. The official performance was in July 2015.

With patients like this, it’s easy to forget that they’re still people in there. A couple of the patients communicate at the end of the video how they feel about their performance. This video by cinema iloobia is wonderful.


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