Music takes flight for disabled pupils

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Scotland is about to score a world "first" by creating a new musical instrument that could revolutionise teaching.

The instrument will allow severely physically disabled children to make music through a combination of sensors linked to hand or eye movement and computer technology. A prototype may be ready by Christmas 2008.

Nigel Osborne of Edinburgh University, as a director of the Learning Tapestry organisation, has been awarded a pound;195,000 grant by Nesta (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) to develop the new instrument.

The grant will form part of a wider research project being operated by Tapestry into the educational and health benefits of the creative arts.

Professor Osborne, who has achieved international renown for his use of music therapy to heal children traumatised by war and conflict, is one of the foremost experts on the psychological and physiological effects of music.

His work with disabled children has already convinced him that giving them the opportunity to play a musical instrument can unleash creativity and pleasure and be highly empowering.

"This can be massively transforming for disabled children," Professor Osborne said. "Some people I work with have quite severe cerebral palsy.

They have very little movement and do not have the ability to speak, yet they have brains firing with life and intelligence and creativity.

"The creative arts, particularly music, can transform the way in which people can express themselves as human beings. Some of these people are hugely talented. The world is a richer place through that talent being found and expressed."

Professor Osborne has been supported in his latest venture by a group of Scottish music advisers - Graham Wilson, John O'Dowd, John Wilson, Brian Kerr and Hamish Johnston - whom he describes as "the most effective, visionary group of people I have ever worked with".

It is from that committee of advisers that the idea of a new musical instrument targeted particularly at children with disability but also with wider general applications first emerged.

Experts in musical physics and psychology at Edinburgh University's institute for music in human and social development will collaborate on the project. The physicists will work with Professor Osborne to create a method of synthesising sound so that it models a virtual instrument. What should mark it out will be its ability to sense expressive movements in the player.

The psychologists' contribution will be based on what allows the brain in humans and animals to judge motion and space - effectively a mathematical understanding of expressive movement. That collaboration will produce an instrument that can be operated by someone with just a small movement of the eye or the hand.

The instrument's computerised memory will be similar to that of a desktop or laptop, which should help keep the instrument affordable for those who will benefit most.

Professor Osborne describes the project as by no means "pie in the sky".

The components of the research are already there - many elements are already available off the shelf. What his team hopes to do is to link them all up and create an instrument that will be at the cutting edge in international terms, linking music, science and psychology.

With the support of four authorities - Fife, North Lanarkshire, North and East Ayrshire - children in special schools will be involved in the instrument's development in two phases.

The special schools will also be included in a wider research programme being run by Tapestry and part-funded by Nesta into the links between the creative arts, health and education. This will include research into areas such as the therapeutic benefits of music and swimming, since soundwaves travel much farther under water.

Professor Osborne anticipates that the first versions of the instrument will synthesise the sound of the violin and for the first time severely physically disabled people will be able to reproduce the dynamics, pressure and vibrato of a violin bow via the sensor.

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