Enter the maze

Let's all jam: moosikMasheens!

by Dave Meckin, Queen Mary University of London

glockoMasheen: a mechanical contraption around a glockenspiel so it can be played by iPad

I think everyone should have the chance to play music together. After all some of the most fun I've ever had has been playing music, especially with other people. Learning to play music isn't easy though - it takes hard work and dedication - but it can be very rewarding. It's also a fun way for kids to develop social skills. Playing a traditional acoustic musical instrument like a guitar or drums just isn't possible for some people, though. Some have difficulty moving, some learn differently, some can't speak, and others have sensory issues such as being blind or deaf. Often, it's a combination of these things that makes things seem impossibly difficult. Why should they miss out on the fun though. They need a lot of care, but for the same reason they would also get a massive boost if they could express themselves through music. That's why making music accessible using new technology is important.

There are lots of special technologies for making electronic sounds, but the same isn't true for acoustic instruments. When you play a guitar or drums, you don't just hear the sound, you can also feel it if you are touching the instrument: acoustic instruments give multimodal feedback - feedback to more than one sense at once. Because the sound is coming from the instrument itself as opposed to a speaker, you can also be sure that it was you who made the sound! That makes it a really interesting thing to explore as a way to help people with complex needs.


guitarMasheen: a mechanical contraption around a guitar so it can be played by iPad

I decided to help, so worked with a special school in Bath to design and build a set of adapted instruments to allow students of different abilities to take part in musical workshops. I called what I came up with moosikMasheens. It's made up of three real instruments: a glockenspiel (glockoMasheen), a guitar (guitarMasheen) and a pair of drum sticks (beaterMasheen). Each is controlled digitally using an iPad over a WiFi network. The instruments are actually played by a mechanical system, so you can see the mechanism moving as well as hear and feel the sound. The iPads can pick up even the slightest movement and turn it into an action on the instrument. That means that a budding musician, who only has a tiny bit of controlled movement in their arm or head, can still play a chord on a guitar for instance. The interactions are simple: a button on the iPad triggers a note, chord or drum beat depending on how the leader of the jam session sets up the software.

Testing testing, how did it go?

beaterMasheen: a mechanical contraption around drum sticks so they can be played by iPad

Having worked with the teachers to figure out what the problems were around music technology in the school, we then built the system and I tested it over 4 months. There were some really great moments where students who would not be able to play normal instruments were jamming together. Another highlight was a student with very complex needs playing the guitar with his face and vocalising while the guitar was touching his back. But there were some problems. The simplicity of the way you controlled the iPad left some of the more able students a bit bored. Still, we did manage to show that having real instruments could be fun and engaging even for young people with really complicated needs, allowing them to play music together.

Into the accessible future

Having shown that it is possible to adapt instruments so anyone can play them together, the possibilities are endless! How might we make a piano or a harp playable by someone who cannot move their fingers? If we put our minds to it, everyone can be jamming together in the future!