[updated March 8, 2012]
Music is among one of the most ancient and ubiquitous human activities. Daniel J. Levitin explains that archaeologists have found that some of the earliest tools created by humans are musical instruments used in ritual gatherings. This supports that historically, music has served as a cohesive mechanism for defining communities, for celebration and for mourning. Ancient music rituals were activities where everyone actively participated regardless of their musical expertise . Our present societies, in stark contrast, have developed a clear distinction between music performers and music listeners. As a result, collective music making has become reserved only for musicians, so most people never have the experience of making music with someone else.
There is however, a moment in our lives when we engage these collective experiences on a regular basis: in our childhood. In elementary school for instance, children are encouraged to play instruments and explore music together. Music becomes something fun to do with others by using play as a catalyst for the musical experience. Children are able to experience this only because the musical instruments they use have a low barrier to entry. A xylophone for example, is a very simple interface that requires a simple gesture, allowing children to quickly jump into the rewarding aspects of the musical experience without spending too much time learning how to play the instrument.
Most traditional instruments, conversely, require a considerable practice to be mastered. “Not knowing how to play an instrument” is an often-cited reason why non-musicians feel incapable of participating in collective music experiences. With traditional instruments, the physical configuration that gives each instrument its unique sound also poses a often difficult challenge to mastery. Sound synthesis however, has opened new possibilities for alternative sound control devices such as the Reactable or the Lemur . Thanks to sound synthesis we can now start designing simpler musical interfaces in order to facilitate the musical experience for non-musicians since we are no longer constrained by the physical attributes of musical instruments.
Taking these ideas into account, I developed Simpletones, an interactive sound system that enables a sense of musical collaboration for non-musicians. Players can participate in musical improvisation with ease in real time by operating physical sound controllers in tandem. Simpletones encourages playful human-to-human interactions through a simple interface and a simple set of basic rules, enabling novices to be free from the need of previous musical experience to explore music in collaboration with other players.
By using play as a catalyst, participants can feel that they are playing instead of “performing”, in turn making collaborative musical improvisation more approachable for non-musicians. Without the need of musical mastery, participants can focus on the collaborative aspects of performance, such as synchronizing movements and collective decision-making, ultimately engaging a state of group ﬂow.
- Daniel J.Levitin. This is your brain on music : the science of human obsession. New York N.Y.: Dutton, 2006.
- Tina Blaine and Sidney Fels. 2003. Collaborative musical experiences for novices. Journal of New Music Research 32 (4) (12): 411-28.
- Daniel J.Levitin, Stephen McAdams, and Robert L. Adams. “Control Parameters for Musical Instruments: a Foundation for New Mappings of Gesture to Sound.” Organised Sound 7, no.02 (2003).
- M. Kaltenbrunner, S. Jordà , G.Geiger, and M.Alonso. The ReacTable: A Collaborative Musical Instrument. In Proceedings of WETICE. 2006, 406-411.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.