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Toy Symphony Maestro

Children need no experience to play music with these toys.
October 1, 2003

Inside the lobby of Kresge Auditorium, electronic buzzes, blips, and strains of melodies bounce around the foyer. A crowd of children, parents, and MIT students is trying out an assortment of handheld musical toys and composing software about to be featured in the sold-out United States premiere of Tod Machover’s Toy Symphony. The performance pairs music professionals with children who have never studied the art, a traditional orchestra with fanciful musical toys, and the work of seasoned composers with that of inexperienced preteens.

At one end of the lobby, a volunteer shows three MIT students how to play Music Shapers, grapefruit-sized, cloth-covered instruments decorated with conductive embroidery; squeezing them changes the timbre of preprogrammed electronic musical phrases. Across the room, another volunteer “conducts” a group of seven children playing softball-sized ladybugs known as Beatbugs, which have touch-sensitive shells and are connected by cable to a central computer. A child taps a rhythm on the drumlike Beatbug, and the computer randomly sends it to another child, who adds another rhythm to it. On half a dozen laptops around the lobby, people compose complex pieces of music for what sounds like a string orchestra, using a software program called Hyperscore.

Machover-“America’s most wired composer,” according to the Los Angeles Times-is well known for his digitally enhanced acoustic instruments, called hyperinstruments. But with the Toy Symphony, which debuted last spring in Ireland, Scotland, and Germany, he and his group in the Media Lab have turned their attention from virtuosi to children. The group hopes to introduce children to complex and subtle aspects of playing music that usually take years to learn on traditional instruments. Machover is driven by the belief that music has become background noise in most people’s lives. Through the toys, Machover says, he’s “basically trying to say, Look, if you like music, it will be a much more powerful experience if you just get in there and experiment with it, take it apart, put it back together, make it yourself.’”

With this in mind, the group first set out to create a Music Toy that would be physically inviting. “I really wanted something squishy, that you could pull and twist,” Machover says. After an assortment of experiments with foam, touch-sensitive mechanical devices, and even Silly Putty, the group chose a metallic thread that can respond to the body’s electrical properties, registering touch. The result was the Music Shaper, which a player can use to manipulate just about any sound. For example, in the Cambridge performance of the Nature Suite, one of the components of the Toy Symphony, four children accompanied the orchestra on Shapers playing sounds such as owl hoots and gusts of wind. The devices allow players to experiment with musical qualities such as timbre, density, and structure in a visceral way, but according to Machover, they also teach kids something about conducting-how to shape music, give it form, and keep it moving.

The group’s toys, such as Beatbugs, introduce children to music in a way that also encourages collaboration. According to Gil Weinberg, the graduate student who wrote the Beatbug software, technology often makes musical collaborations unnecessary and can isolate artists. “I was thinking, how can I use technology to reinvent this aspect of playing in a group, and actually enhance it,” he says. The players take turns entering rhythmic patterns by hitting their Beatbugs’ shells; they can change the pitch or rhythm of the patterns by bending the antennae. When a player has assembled the patterns into a complete piece, he or she hits the Beatbug once more, which sends the piece to the computer and on to another player, who can adjust the existing piece or add a new rhythm. The hardest part about designing the Beatbugs, Weinberg says, was figuring out how the computer would help organize the music-making process while still giving children room to be creative. The group seems to have found the happy medium. During workshops held prior to each performance of the Toy Symphony, children learned to manipulate rhythm in increasingly subtle and pointed ways, and how to listen to and follow other players.

Players create rhythms by hitting a Beatbug and can change its pitch by moving its antennae. (Photograph courtesy of the MIT Media Lab)

But in addition to toy instruments, Machover wanted to build a tool that would allow children to compose music without having to understand musical notation. Hyperscore, designed by graduate students Mary Farbood and Egon Pasztor, SM ‘02, is a musical sketchpad that allows users to create simple, short melodies out of teardrop-shaped “notes.” Moving a note up or down with a mouse changes its pitch, and its size determines its duration. Each motif is assigned a different color, enabling the user to draw a composition. Hyperscore’s “harmonization” feature smooths out clashing notes by making sure that most of the composer’s notes follow a sequence of chords. Hyperscore, now available free on the Toy Symphony Web site, impressed Fisher-Price enough that it has started a collaboration with Machover’s group to commercialize some of the Music Toys, the first of which should be available by the end of the year.

The April concert featured several Hyperscore pieces, written by kids at the workshops, that had been transcribed as traditional scores and were played by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Farbood says that when the group started its European tour, this was the most stressful part of the project for her. “The kids had to actually write a decent piece of music in one week to be played by an orchestra, and that scared me. I thought, Wow, lots of bad things could happen, but it turned out well. The kids had fun, they wrote their pieces, and it worked.” Judging from the smiles on the kids’ faces and the applause of the full-house audience, it seems they would agree.

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