Nowadays, a musician is commonly regarded as someone who performs or composes music, or both. Music is largely seen as a form entertainment. However, there is more to this art form.
Have you heard of the International Association for Music & Medicine? Or the British Association for Music Therapy? And scholarly journals such as Music and Medicine, Psychology of Music, Computer Music Journal and Music & Science? Such alliances highlight a musician’s role in the health professions, engineering and the sciences.
It is only recently that music became the preserve of entertainment. In Medieval times, music was an integral component of higher education. Together with the topics of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, music formed the must-have thinking skills set of the time, referred to as the Quadrivium. In this context, music was the study of the behaviour of numbers in time and correlations between quantities. Playing music was not a subject matter for scholarship until the Renaissance. From then on, music progressed into becoming an art form, increasingly disconnected from the exact sciences. But this is not a bad thing.
Fundamentally, music still is mathematics. However, now music has the added bonus of creativity, subjectivity and emotions. In order to handle music, we deploy a wide range of problem-solving brain functions that would not have been engaged together otherwise.
At the University of Plymouth, we actively promote the interplay between audio, music, engineering and science and to this end the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), is pioneering work in music neurotechnology. Working collaboratively with colleagues in the Centre of Health Technology, this technology is being utilised not for entertainment but to improve the health and wellbeing for people with some of the most complex and debilitating illnesses.
Our Brain-Computer Music Interfacing (BCMI) technology, which enables individuals with severe motor impairment to create and perform music with signals from brain activity, is celebrated worldwide as life-changing. It was captured in the Sky Atlantic/Volvo film Music of the Mind and portrayed the result of our work – and technology – with musician Rosie Johnson. A former violinist of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra Rosie was destined to become a world class musician. In 1988 she suffered a road accident, which robbed her of speech and physical ability to play her musical instrument.
Through BCMI technology, Rosie is now able to play music again. Reunited with a friend and violinist of the WNO Orchestra, Alison Paul they took to the stage alongside one another for the first time in nearly three decades, as Alison became Rosie’s surrogate violin player. In 2017, Rosie received an MBE in recognition of her services to music.
Our work is now focusing on developing ways to automatically remix radio broadcast in real-time to provide bespoke services such as personalised reminders, information and music, for those living with dementia. With no imminent cure for dementia, the project, named RadioMe, aims to improve their quality of life by reducing some of the key causes of hospital admissions such as agitation and not taking medication correctly. We hope this will allow people will be able to remain living independently at home for longer.
ICCMR remains one of only a handful of labs where musicians are developing research at the forefront of computer science and engineering. We may play music to entertain, but in Plymouth we develop music and computer technology to do much more than that.