But now, thanks to cutting edge technology, she is creating music again, using just the power of her mind.
In an extraordinary 10-year project led by the Plymouth University and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, her brain has been wired up to a computer using Brain Computer Music Interfacing software.
By focusing on different colored lights on a computer screen she can select notes and phrases to be played and alter a composition as it is performed by live musicians. The intensity of her mental focus can even change the volume and speed of the piece.
It is the first time Miss Johnson, 50, has been able to create music in decades and has been an emotional experience for the her, and the scientists involved in the program.
“It was really very moving,” said Professor Eduardo Miranda, Composer and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth University.
“The first time we tried with Rosemary we were in tears. We could feel the joy coming from her at being able to make music. It was perfect because she can read music very well and make a very informed choice.
“The great achievement of this project is that it is possible to perform music without being able to actually move. She is essentially controlling another musician to play it for her.
“It’s not yet possible to read thoughts but we can train people to use brain signals to control things.”
Three other disabled patients who live at the hospital have also been trained to use the technology, and have been working alongside four able-bodied musicians from the Bergersen String quartet who play the music in real time as it is selected.
They are called The Paramusical Ensemble, and they have already recorded a piece of music entitled Activating Memory which will be heard for the first time at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival in Plymouth later this month.
Miss Johnson’s mother Mary, 80, of Hounslow, West London said the project had given her daughter new hope.
“Music is really her only motivation,” she said. “I take her to the grand piano in the hospital and she can only really play a few chords, but that was the only time she shows any interest. She doesn’t really enjoy anything else.
“But this has been so good for her. I can tell she has really enjoyed it. When she performed I went to the hospital and that is the first time I have heard her make music, other than the piano chords for a long, long time.”
The technology works like a ‘musical game’ where the players select pieces of melody at certain times of the performance to augment the overall work, which was composed by Prof Miranda.
Each patient wears an EEG cap furnished with electrodes which can read electrical information from their brain. They are paired with a member of the string quartet who views the musical phrases on a screen as they are selected in real-time.
Julian O’Kelly, Research Fellow at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability added: “This is a great means of transcending disability to offer individuals a unique experience of creating music with each other, and interacting with skilled musicians to create original compositions.
“In the case of Rosemary, the project illustrated the great potential this innovation could have for participants who may have once been gifted musicians, but now lack the physical abilities to engage in music making.
“You could clearly see in her broad smile during the performance how much she enjoyed the experience.”
The patient quartet are made of Miss Johnson, Clive Wells, Richard Bennett and Steve Thomas.
Speaking through an automated voice machine, Mr Thomas said: “I like music and I am very interested in the Brain Computer Music Interface. It’s more interactive with people actually getting my instructions.
“It was great to hear the musician play the phrase I selected. I tried to select music that was harmonious with the others. It’s very cool.”
The team are hoping that the technology could be used one day to improve mood and help them to express their feelings.
“If our patients were able to compose music to reflect their state of mind, that would be an amazing way for them to be able to express themselves and music therapists could then use that to work with the patients,” added Dr Sophie Duport, of Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability
Joel Eaton, PhD Research Student at Plymouth University’s said: “One of the key things about this system is that not only does it give a user the interaction and control of an instrument, it allows them to interact with each other.’
‘If this idea was developed it could have ramifications in all areas of someone’s life. Potentially I can see the ability for someone to express musically how they are feeling again without their ability to move their fingers, to communicate with words.’