It’s a brand new day for the ‘think system’ in music

Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, can replace bodily functions to a certain degree. Thanks to BCI, physically impaired people can control special prostheses through the power of their minds, surf the internet, and write emails.

Under the title of “Brain Composer,” a group led by BCI expert Gernot Müller-Putz from the Graz University of Technology’s Institute of Neural Engineering shows that experiences of quite a different tone can be sounded from the keys of brain-computer interfaces.

Derived from an established BCI method that mainly serves to spell words more accurately during writing, the team has developed a new application by which music can be composed and transferred onto a musical score—just through the power of thought. Here’s all you need:

  • a special cap to measure brain waves
  • the adapted BCI
  • a software application for composing music

It would also help to have some working knowledge of how to, you know, compose a piece of music. But assuming all of that is in place, a short video entitled “Sheet Music by Mind” gives an impression of composing music by BCI.

The basic principle of the BCI method used, which is called P300, can be described as follows: Various options, such as letters or notes, pauses, chords, etc., flash by one after the other in a table. If you’re trained and can focus on the desired option when it lights up, you cause a small change in your brain waves. The BCI recognizes this change and draws conclusions about the chosen option.

In order to test the system, 18 test subjects had to “think” melodies onto a musical score. All of them were of sound bodily health during the study and had a certain degree of basic musical and compositional knowledge, since they all played musical instruments to some degree. The results have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“The results of the BCI compositions can really be heard,” Müller-Putz said. “And what is more important, the test [subjects] 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 subject] are the first step in a possible expansion of the BCI composition to patients.”

Some parts of ongoing research at TU Graz, which is in Austria, focus on people with disabilities, looking for ways to increase their access to the functions of society. Meanwhile there are some initial attempts to develop BCI systems for smartphones. This would make it easier for people to use BCI applications.

It is thus conceivable to have BCI apps that can analyze brain signals for various applications. “Twenty years ago, the idea of composing a piece of music using the power of the mind was unimaginable,” Mr Müller0Putz said. “Now we can do it, and at the same time have tens of new, different ideas which are in part, once again, a long way from becoming reality. We still need a bit more time before it is mature enough for daily applications.”