Robotic musical instruments for children, elderly

Written by: Tom Austin-Morgan | Published:

The University of Manchester’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering has partnered with the Hallé Orchestra to develop a completely new, electronically controlled, acoustic instrument for use by schoolchildren and people with dementia.

It is widely recognised that music therapy can be used as a communication tool to help reduce anxiety and depression and maintain speech and language. The instrument would enable children and dementia patients to participate in creating music, allowing them to get involved with writing and devising, alongside the Hallé orchestra.

“Music has an extraordinary calming effect, and it enables children to interact in a different way,” said Peter Green, a lecturer in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. “Music has patterns and rhythms, the same as maths, so before they know it they are learning maths by exploring music. We often start with a rap and it ends up with classical – the roots of the music are the same.”

Designed and built by the University’s technical apprentices, the ‘Halléoojamaflipaphone’ was the first new musical instrument to be completed. A combination of tubular bells, zither, shakers, drums, cymbals and woodblocks, all controlled from a laptop, the Halléoojamaflipaphone can play anything from Beethoven to hip hop.

maxon motor was asked to help with the technologies to build the instruments. Green needed products that were dynamic, small, modular and quiet at high speeds. maxon supplied a number of RE DC motors, gearheads and encoders, as well as EPOS motion controllers, all linked together via CAN communication to allow synchronised real time movement.

The ultimate goal for the collaboration is to create more instruments and have them available in schools and care homes.

“We have already played in front of 16,000 children at concerts and now we have moved to another developmental phase,” Green explained. “Steve [Pickett, Hallé’s Education Director,] needs to be able to play a broader range of string instruments and we also want to develop some more air blown instruments.

“The initial 4 string plectrum mechanism was crude, and we have now moved to a solenoid activated system. We will be using maxon drive systems to tune the strings and for the shaker, we will be using maxon controllers for the position and speed control.”

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