Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

A Musician on a Tripartite Mission

A Musician on a Tripartite Mission

Headshot of Margaret Schedel

Computer Music faculty artist Margaret Schedel (MM ’01, Computer Music Composition) works with Parkinson’s Disease researchers to use music as a rehabilitative intervention. For nearly a decade she has collaborated with biomedical and neurological researchers, engineers, and physical therapists to use sonification to maintain gait.

Current work involves placing custom sensors in the shoes of people with Parkinson’s disease, many of whom experience gait problems. The sensors send signals to the patient’s smartphone, which plays music in headphones as they walk. If their walking form is off, the music becomes distorted, a real-time signal to the patient to adjust their motion until the music sounds clear again. 

“I’m currently putting a huge NIH grant together at this intersection of music, artificial intelligence, and disability,” Schedel says. “I’m really excited about using music as a cognitive pathway for people with motion control problems.”

Growing up in New Jersey, she started playing piano to deal with her small motor-control issues and studied with Elizabeth Angilette, who had studied with Nadia Boulanger. Miss Angilette, as she was called by her students, taught music theory alongside the keyboard, igniting a lifelong interest for Schedel in both music making and musical notation’s grammar and syntax. She began studying cello as a teen, around the same time her computer programmer father brought home an early copy of the music notation software Finale for her. Music and computing blurred together.

Schedel wrote her first piece, Persistence of Memory for cello and cassette tape, during a summer computer music workshop at Oberlin College, and earned her undergraduate computer music degree at Goucher College, where she first started taking courses with Peabody faculty members Geoffrey Wright and McGregor Boyle.

Peabody’s computer music Master’s program was the only one to which she applied. “It was so interesting because there’s a performance, a composition, or a research track, and if you’re in one track you have to collaborate with people from the others,” she says. “I thought that was such an intelligent way of doing things because I’m interested in all three.”

Schedel remains an active researcher, composer, and performer. In addition to the Parkinson’s project, she’s also working on a book with UK-based cultural engineer and game designer Phoenix Perry about embodied cognition and the history of video game controllers.

A do-it-yourself motivation and sharp mix of intelligence and humor runs through Schedel’s creative output. She’s also constructing a rotary clothing rack for composer/performer Jocelyn Ho’s Women’s Labor project, which transforms older devices associated with women’s work into musical instruments. Schedel’s previous collaboration with Ho, Housework Lock (her) Down (2020), used embedded irons to create sound based on a spectrographic image of the fabric being ironed. With the clothing rack that Schedel is now building, clothes hang on potentiometers that create a tone; the amplitude of that tone is determined by the rotation speed of the rack while the pitch is controlled by the weight of the clothing.

Her debut album, Signal through the Flames, tentatively due out on Parma Recordings later this year, is a collection of work featuring electronics in combination with acoustic instruments. “I need to finish this fractal violin and percussion concerto, which is the piece that is going to be the anchor of the CD,” she says, adding that “the second movement is the most beautiful thing I have ever written.”

Her music can involve a wealth of computational math, oftentimes scored in musical notation of her own invention. She is driven by a lifelong interest in exploring new ways to make sound and convey those instructions to performers.

Case in point, Schedel’s band, The S.E.A.L.s. The name is a cheeky acronym of “Synthetic Erudition Assist Lattice,” which Schedel and her bandmates call the various forms of artificial intelligence they use to make music. “I’ve been using a lot of machine learning to make drum beats,” Schedel says.

Computationally and AI-mediated music and performance, she says, can introduce moments that require performers to make interpretive and creative responses to a score that changes how it sounds: a score may specify a rhythmic element but leave the timbre response up to the performer. “My happy place is writing music like that because that’s the kind of music I like performing—and some other performers do, too,” she says. “I think more and more we’re seeing that improvisation needs to be a fundamental skill that is taught in the academy.”

-Bret McCabe