Tag Team Tech December 2016

It’s Instrumental – Making Musical Instruments at the Library

Janice Scurio

scurio-2Music production programming for young adults usually features the instruction and use of professional software and recording tools, such as microphones, guitars, keyboards, and other musical instruments. In my experience delivering music based programming for teens, the production aspect is perhaps the most alluring – they’ll want to know how some of their favorite pop hits were created, and get their hands on the same tools used in the studio to get that certain sound. Beyond fancy programs like ProTools, not all music based programming needs to integrate expensive equipment or software. If you’ve got programming kits full of found objects and random materials, you can make fun musical instruments with your teens. A library can also offer access to rare instruments, instruction on how to make musical instruments they can take home, and even offer the ability to repair broken instruments.

If you’ve got one, a permanent maker space may already contain materials suitable for creating musical instruments; found household items such as straws, bottles, rubber bands, water, and even 3D printed pieces can all contribute to a fun makeshift instrument. These materials can also be easily set up for pop-up programming, either by themselves or in conjunction with “kits” that can circulate between branches or libraries in a regional system.

It is true that a well-crafted musical instrument requires research, time, craftsmanship and attention to get details correct. While this is a great long term goal, this shouldn’t be the focus of a program about design thinking for musical instruments. The only thing needed besides objects and a means to manipulate their form is basic knowledge of musical instrument types, and how they create sound.

Music-Focused Makerspaces

A few music-centric maker spaces exist and are already making waves (no pun intended) with the educator and library community. The Soundbox, located at the National Music Centre at Studio Bell in Calgary, AB, Canada is fully equipped with examples of stringed, brass, percussion, and woodwind instruments (complete with 3D printed reeds to use with a provided saxophone), a 3D printer to print pieces of instruments to be assembled by visitors, and a pegboard wall that can be used to affix 3D printed pieces such as guitar frets and rubber bands to mimic a guitar’s fretboard.

scurio-4Also found at the National Music Centre are musical instruments that may not be easily found otherwise: namely hand drums, bells, mandolins, ukuleles, and even theremins (great segue into audio science to teach about the manipulation of sound waves to make music).  Example instruments, which can provide inspiration for making, do not need to be top of line or even conventional. Older, rare instruments can provide a historical context on how instruments were designed – how might someone improve the sound on an older electric mandolin? Repair a hand drum? Modify a keytar? You’ve provided the tools, creativity can take over.

Acquiring older instruments is easy – they can be donated, and used music stores will have them for relatively cheap.  Instruments that may be in need of repair can be a great project, patched with other materials and tools in the maker space. (Electric instruments can be repaired pretty easily for the most part with a little know-how and a small soldering iron.) Besides that, they’re just cool to have around – and what better place to offer access to rare instruments than at the library?

Perhaps the biggest concept to drive home in a musically inclined maker-based environment is that sound is everywhere, and anything can be made into an instrument. Anything.


Music Maker Spaces at Your Library

scurio-1Everyone’s idea of a music-based maker program can vary greatly, and that’s okay. Your space can integrate high and low tech, very similar to the Soundbox at Studio Bell. You may already have a 3D printer, and providing some pre-printed frets can couple well with rubber bands and a pegboard to create a sound wall, similar to the one pictured above. Other found objects count, too – jars of water, cigar boxes, mallets, straws, conductive materials can all make for an interesting makeshift musical experience. An array with laptops configured with MakeyMakeys and a cornucopia of conductive materials work just as well. There are so many DIY projects to recreate, or encouraging free tinkering is fine, too – your materials and instructional suggestions like in the photo above, can encourage new and exciting ways of creating sound.

The resources below are a mix of both high and low tech ways to create musical instruments, with kits that can easily circulate and projects that are teen-appropriate, and okay to use with a younger audience, too.

Tools and Kits

Makey Makeyhttp://makeymakey.com $49.95

A versatile invention kit, Makey Makeys can be used for a wide variety of technology education projects, but especially useful in creating music. Makey Makey allows the creator to turn objects that can conduct electricity (bananas, water, coins, and even other people) into musical instruments using jaw clips that interface to a circuit board that resembles a video game controller. Plugging Makey Makey into a computer via USB is similar to using an external keyboard – whatever you’ve chosen to connect to the Makey Makey becomes your new controller. You’ll have to use a flash-based web app (the flash piano is a personal favorite), but there are plenty to choose from on the manufacturer’s site. I once loaded a different instrument on each of four laptops and encouraged teens in a “band” to play a song together.

Ototohttp://www.ototo.fm – $145

While Makey Makey can be used for a variety of invention projects, Ototo is specifically for making music. Similar to Makey Makey in the sense that it allows everyday objects to interface with a circuit board, Ototo allows the creation of music without needing to connect to a computer, with its built-in speaker, 50 pre-programmed sounds and layout similar to a musical keyboard. Ototo’s circuit board also has three sensor inputs that control loudness, pitch, and timbre, which leaves plenty of room for sound experimentation. Ototo also has a headphone jack, which provides more of a private, personal music creation experience.

Korg/littleBits Synth Kithttp://littlebits.cc/kits/synth-kit $159

Have you ever wanted to build a modular synth? Of course you have. littleBits, famous for their easy magnetic snap circuit building kits, collaborated with electronic music instrument moguls Korg. Together they created an easy to use synth builder that works by snapping smaller pieces together to achieve different electronic sounds. With an array of different projects and inventions (and professional endorsements by musician/comedian Reggie Watts and DJ Mark Ronson) this Synth Kit teaches not only music skills but demonstrates the underlying principles of electronics.

3Doodlerhttp://the3doodler.com/community/type/decorate/ – $99

More of a “helper tool” than a music instrument creator itself, the 3Doodler allows creators to make modifications to existing musical instruments (but only make sure you do this to used equipment, and not an heirloom guitar). Examples of using 3Doodlers with musical instruments include modifying sound holes on recorders, or repairing/adding frets to a stringed instrument.  Teens in programs past have used a 3Doodler to decorate or even make accessories for an instrument, such as a guitar pick holder.

More Resources

To Make a Makerspace – https://nmc.ca/to-make-a-makerspace/

Evan Rothery of the National Music Centre talks about using a pegboard for Musical Creation in a musical Makerspace.

MakerSpace Resources for Music Creation – http://www.speedofcreativity.org/2016/02/05/makerspace-resources-ideas-for-digital-music-creation/

This blog post shows how to integrate STEM concepts with music creation, along with a cool “water phone” project.

Musical Instruments to Make – https://www.pinterest.com/shannonmmiller/musical-instruments-to-make/

A diverse collection of high tech and low tech ways to create musical instruments in a maker setting, some examples using MakeyMakey, Ototo, and various found household object

3D Printing Musical Instruments – http://www.instructables.com/id/3d-Printing-Musical-Instruments/

This Instructable shows how 3D printers can be used to print an entire instrument, functional parts of an instrument, and modifiers that can create completely new sounds altogether.

scurio-headshotJanice Scurio is a teen services librarian in Madison, Wisconsin. With an extensive background in information technology, she has served as an expert advisor for other libraries looking to implement more youth STEM programming, such as Minecraft and LEGO robotics. When not at the library, she enjoys karaoke, eating sushi, running marathons, and making fun electronic music.





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