Lead researcher with model of brain

‘Brain Composer’ allows for mind-controlled musical composition

Image credit: Lunghammer - TU Graz

Researchers from Gras University of Technology (TU Graz), Austria, have developed a brain-computer interface application which allows the user to compose music simply by thinking.

A brain computer interface (BCI) allows for direct communication between a brain and an external device. These interfaces can use brain implants to monitor neural activity, or non-invasive means, such as with an EEG headset, which fixes electrodes in place around the head.

Although the technology is still in relatively early stages, BCIs can already replace some bodily functions, such as allowing people with disabilities to grasp using a prosthetic arm, restore sight to people who acquired blindness, or type without moving.

As well as major public research institutions, Silicon Valley giants are attempting to exploit the technology to bring to consumers, such as with basic mind-controlled video games, or Facebook’s exploration of a non-invasive interface that could allow for typing at 100 words per minute.

The TU Graz ‘Brain Composer’ application was based on well-established technology, the P300, which emerged in its earliest forms in the 1960s. Today it is mainly used in research, as well as in BCI applications to help people with severe disabilities write.

When used as a writing aid, the method flashes up various options such as letters, which can be selected by the user focusing their concentration on that option. This induces a small, readable change in their brain waves. For the ‘Brain Composer’ application, instead of letters, the user is offered a choice of notes, chords and other musical symbols.

The system requires the interface itself, standard composition software, and a cap for monitoring neural activity.

The researchers tested their new application with 15 able-bodied participants, who all had at least basic musical and compositional knowledge. The group included Franz Cibulka, a prolific Austrian composer. They were put through training in order to raise their accuracy to a satisfactory level and then asked to “think” a melody onto a musical score.

“The results of the BCI compositions can really be heard,” said Professor Gernot Müller-Putz, a BCI expert from the Institute of Neural Engineering at TU Graz. “What is more important, the test [participants] enjoyed it.”

“After a short training session, all of them could start composing and seeing their melodies on the score and then play them. The very positive results of the study with [able-bodied participants] are the first step in a possible expansion of the BCI composition to patients.”

The researchers hope that the ongoing exploration of BCI systems for smartphones could eventually allow for a BCI-enabled composition app for anybody to use.

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