Could musical instruments be reimagined to make them more accessible?

Design Partners researcher Anusia Grennell shares insight into the world of musical instrument design and tips on establishing a more inclusive approach.

Music transcends many barriers that divide us, going beyond the written word to achieve a deeper resonance across cultures and national boundaries. Some instruments have been purposefully built to offer disabled musicians the chance to make music.

Touch Chord, for example, is a touch-sensitive, breath-controlled instrument. Created by Human Instruments in collaboration with John Kelly and Bare Conductive, Touch Chord allows the player to play notes and chords over three octaves with only two fingers. The unique layout and design mean the player does not need previous musical training to play and write complex chord sequences or melodies.

The MiMU Gloves, developed by singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, are another example of accessible music making, showing how new designs can overcome barriers for disabled musicians.

A future instrument concept from Design Partners. Place your memories or precious objects into the Soundscape base to explore what sounds are algorithmically generated by their presence.

But musical instruments are not always designed with this universality in mind, particularly when it comes to people’s physical limitations. At Design Partners, we focus on developing products that elevate human potential, so we realised this was an area that needed exploring. We also have a number of keen musicians on our team, so we decided to investigate how design is influencing positive change in this space. We wanted to know what could be done at the design phase to make musical instruments more accessible.

Our research involved interviewing John Kelly and Tim Palm, accomplished musicians with lived experiences of disability and backgrounds in creating accessible musical instruments. We also spoke to Vahakn Matossian, founder of Human Instruments, an organisation that develops high quality Accessible Music Technology (AMT), innovation which allows differently-abled people the opportunity to play music. Sound designer Yuri Suzuki provided input as well as the inventor of electromagnetic acoustic instrument Segulharpa, Úlfur Hansson.

Here’s what we discovered.

Be transparent about barriers

Another instrument concept from Design Partners. Aura generates unique sounds to its individual user by scanning their physical features and movements. Performance and sounds are harmoniously merged as the waves of music wash over the player.

Even when valid efforts are made to design an accessible instrument or device, it is unlikely that it will fit the needs of all musicians. Instruments may inherently have limitations, but acknowledging them will help people make more informed decisions about what tools will best fit their lives.

Award-winning multi-instrumentalist and designer Tim Palm aka DJ Arthro, echoes this in our report. He explains that if manufacturers acknowledge the potential use cases and limitations of their products then he can make informed decisions about what works for him as a consumer. He says, “Rather than saying it’s accessible, it’s better to say this device is accessible for this kind of need. Labels like ‘this instrument works for people with blindness’ or ‘this degree of pressure needed’ could really help.”

Reshape Music, a study from music charity Youth Music, reported that 63% of surveyed music retailers are unaware that instruments made specifically for disabled people’s needs even existed. If transparency around barriers were addressed and instruments were designed with a clear description of what accessible issue they speak to, this problem could be lessened. We would likely see an increase in awareness among retailers who can then offer practical advice on accessible devices.

Don’t make the mistake of predicting what people’s use patterns will be

People with similar levels of physical impairment will use a product in a completely different way, adapting their use to the equipment or vice versa. Yuri Suzuki, sound designer and electronic musician, elaborates this point. He says, “Not all musical instruments are designed for everyone, and every human being has individual ways of playing music. Each person has a different passion – some want additional functionality so that’s why we see people doing their own modifications to instruments.”

It is impossible to create a device that can work perfectly for all. But a highly accessible instrument should have the flexibility to adjust to various needs. Tim Palm emphasises the importance of modularity. “Manufacturers need to give options, so the users are able to remap the buttons, or create their own interfaces,” he says. Many modern musical devices start recognising that issue by providing software which allows users to reprogram or alter the behaviour of the instrument in a user-friendly way. Designers have a responsibility to design products and services that meet the needs of a universal audience. Designs that are flexible – either modular or adaptable – will allow people to use the product in different ways.

Lead and finish with accessibility at the forefront

Generate unique audio signals by moving, shifting, or knocking over the Blox. Build the blocks higher to increase the volume, shake them to vibrate, or experiment with shapes to discover new sounds.

It’s important to recognise that accessibility is not a bolt-on, but rather an integral part of the design process and problem-solving. Musician and disability and human rights campaigner John Kelly recommends re-structuring the sign-off procedure to include accessibility checks involving people with lived experiences of disabilities. Developing an accessible design unit could also be a good idea.

Good design practice should always involve prototyping, testing, and iterating – an optimal approach to ensure the final experience fits purposely into people’s lives. At Design Partners, we start by building a diverse panel of users who are invested in the subject matter. This approach provides a designer with direct experience and a better understanding of what’s required to create a universal design. It not only gives essential insight into hurdles, but it also helps accelerate momentum in exploration and decision making. Dialogue is all-important in this dynamic – being able to establish a common language and a shared set of values early on will enable a smoother roll out of any design.

Anusia Grennell is a design researcher at Design Partners. The full report on instrument design can be viewed on the studio’s website.

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