CIT biomedical engineering graduate, James Fogarty, explains the development of his award-winning project on the design of an assistive technology music system for sufferers of cerebral palsy
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Author: CIT biomedical engineering graduate, James Fogarty, winner of the Best Medical Engineering Undergraduate Project competition at the Healthcare Technologies Student and Early Career Awards 2015

Coming from an Irish musical background, playing music is something that has always been part of my life. Playing music with my family and friends was an important part of growing up. A video of my two brothers and I playing music can be found here. I can be seen playing the fiddle.

Music gives us a sense of community and culture and is such an integral part of our lives that it can often be taken for granted. When trying to decide on a final-year project for my biomedical engineering course, I wanted something that would have an actual final product and would not just be discarded when the year reached its conclusion.

James Fogarty is pictured here with the instrument and Jenny Garde from the SoundOUT programme

James Fogarty is pictured here with the instrument and Jenny Garde from the SoundOUT programme

A community organisation that works with people with various disabilities to create music in the Cork city area called SoundOut had been in contact with the college (Cork Institute of Technology) in relation to a potential project. When I became aware of the opportunity, I knew I could draw on my musical and engineering background to genuinely help someone who had not been gifted the same freedom of musical expression. This resulted in my final year BEng (Honours) in Biomedical Engineering project on ‘Design and Development of an Assistive Technology Music System for Sufferers of Cerebral Palsy – Music-ability‘, which was supervised by CIT lecturer Sally Bryan and carried out in conjunction with the SoundOut organisation

One of the main motivations for this project was the fact that the movements of the subject were not being utilised fully as a method of music creation. SoundOut had tried to work with some of the other existing assistive technologies, but to no avail. Eye-tracking software exists that could be utilised. However, as a means of generating music, it would not be very expressive and would not give the ‘feel’ of an instrument. In addition, repetition of eye movement may cause eye strain and would require a lot of concentration.

Another piece of hardware that had limited success utilised a gyroscope and involved neck movement but, unfortunately, the subject had not the sufficient control over neck movement. If the subject had tremors, keeping contact with the mouth piece could be very difficult. Another problem was that the subject would need good neck control and good posture. The mouth piece also had to be cleaned regularly.

Assistive music system


The system that I developed works off basic movements, which enables the subject to explore different rhythms and to play a range of notes and keys similar to any other instrument. This instrument is electronic and implemented by simple movements. The developing design utilises a dual three-axis accelerometer and data-acquisition module system processed to create more sophisticated music than is possible with current systems.

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From this original concept, the software is designed to achieve the eight basic notes in a scale using simple movements of the arm. Further technical and software development is progressed to utilise both the head and hand movements to create corresponding percussion sound effects. Improvement and optimisation is undertaken to aid the creation of music with additional features such as different sound effects, calibration and note display.

The music creation system can be connected to a public-address system to play with other musicians live and to record music – this connectivity achieved via auxiliary cable and auxiliary cable jack configuration. The system is tested with the subject and alterations to the software are completed to enhance the music creation capability of the subject and ensure consistent performance.

This project concentrates on the study of the range and strength of movement of one particular student – resulting, however, in the creation of a generic instrument that enables patients of similar mobility to play, record and enjoy sophisticated music. The developed generic assistive-music technology system is readily adapted to a wide range of disabilities.

For people with disabilities, music participation has been demonstrated to have significant benefits in terms of development of cognitive, physical, communication, social and emotional skills. Music is an effective means of stimulating and focusing attention and may be especially significant for some people who do not respond to other interventions.

Music is also an important tool in learning, as it can provide significant assistance in memorisation. Scientific evidence exists that rhythm stimulates and organises muscle response with a significant assist to people with neuromuscular disorders. Music therapy has the distinction of being effective at stimulating and motivating speech, as well as providing an avenue for non-verbal communication. An article that provides more insight into my final-year project can be found in Eoin English’s article in the Irish Examiner.

The project is currently being utilised by the SoundOut organisation during its weekly classes. From working with SoundOut, I have a profound respect for the work that it does and the time that the staff invest in order to put a smile on people’s face. Their efforts allow people to make friends, create memories and express themselves through music.

Next steps – further research


My project was a lot to take on and required countless hours of work. Fitting this in with an already-intense year was obviously a challenge. However, it was something that was worth every second. Handing over a project that I knew would evoke happiness in people’s lives brings with it a different level of accomplishment, more than I had previously witnessed in college – perhaps even more so than the graduation itself.

However, I am under no illusions; the project is not perfect. I feel that there are still limitations associated with using the project. I believe that a software bridge will have to be designed, which will allow the developed application to communicate with a digital-audio workspace. This will allow for more complicated operations and sounds. In addition, wireless accelerometers are something that would unclutter the system and allow for a more comfortable experience for the user.

Similarly, if wireless accelerometers were used, it could allow the device to communicate with a smartphone application. A version of the final report can be found on the CIT website, which runs through the engineering behind creating the device. CIT has a proven track record of allowing its students to think outside the box and provide support in developing these ideas.

A compendium of international and national student engineering and innovation awards for CIT can be seen here, which highlights the college’s remarkable achievements in the field of engineering.

James Fogarty won the Vicon: Best Medical Engineering Undergraduate Project Competition at the Healthcare Technologies Student and Early Career Awards 2015 Finals, which took place on Wednesday 25 February in London. He was the only Irish student shortlisted for the Finals.

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  Author: CIT biomedical engineering graduate, James Fogarty, winner of the Best Medical Engineering Undergraduate Project competition at the Healthcare Technologies Student and Early Career Awards 2015 Coming from an Irish musical background, playing music is something that has always been part of my life. Playing music with my family and friends...