A musical instrument anyone call play

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

Many of us are interested in music, and would love to play an instrument, but never found the time to put in the hard hours to learn the necessary skills.

For many then, it will be of interest to learn that a group of students in St Mary’s College, Rathmines, Dublin are developing an instrument anyone can play. The idea is that the instrument will be so simple, that even a musical novice, or a disabled person, will quickly be able to produce music of a decent quality.

David Howard, Gavin Wynne, and Emmet O’Toole, all 5th years, and keen musicians are developing the idea, under the supervision teacher, John Nisbet. The students want to develop a brand new instrument based around electronics and physical principles. The idea, simply put, is for the person ‘playing’ the instrument to put their hand in a box and control the music in that way.

The instrument, they believe, will be simple enough for the complete music novice to play it, or for a person suffering from many physical disabilities. It is very visual, and very clear, says John Nisbet, and it can be thought of as one step up from the musical mats that young children can step on to make music.

The inspiration for the idea came from things like the ‘light harp’ which is based on breaking up a beam of light, and the degree of breakage, creates the sound. The students are getting help from their teacher to develop the programmable integrated circuits that control a set of three musical notes and process them.

The broad idea is that a person’s hand, or a tool of some sort, can be used to control the amount of light being allowed into a square that controls the notes. This is dependent on the use of an LDR, or light dependent resistor, which ensures that the level of light allowed into the square, controls the music.

The students are currently designing and manufacturing their instrument at their school on the Lower Rathmines Road, in Dublin 6, in advance of the Exhibition. However, they already have their sights set well beyond January and the RDS, as they believe that their instrument could be commercially developed.

“They have a vision for this, it is not just for a laugh,” said John. “They have a vision for its use in a concert performance, or in a kids bedroom as a performing tool, as well as a training thing for musicians. They have thought about all this.”