Pushing a small wooden train around a track with one pudgy toddler hand, the sound of a steam engine choo-choo-ing from your mouth. Winding up a music box and holding it to your ear as a mysterious apparatus within plucks a recognizable series of chords from a steel comb. Whether of the Chugga Chugga Express or of a tiny mechanical orchestra, both a music box and a toy train set cast children in the role of a conductor. But what if these different types of conducting could be merged into a single educational experience?
That’s the idea behind the Sound Track, a mash-up that aims to teach kids how music works while it simultaneously teaches them motor skills. A wooden train set with a music box’s revolving cylinder for an engine, the Sound Track is a fantastic example of a great design that sat on the shelf for years until the right company came along to make it a reality.
The concept of the Sound Track was born back in 2009, when Ricardo Seola, a Brazilian student taking an industrial design course at Scuolda Politecnica di Design, in Milan, was asked to create a toy for children as his final project.
As a musician, Seola knew from the beginning that he wanted to make a toy that promoted the same fascination with music he himself had felt from an early age. “One of the most important aspects of my childhood was playing with musical toys,” Seola remembers. “I wanted to come up with an intuitive toy, where every action made while playing it produced a clear musical reaction.”
To a kid, making music can seem very mysterious, but the fundamental love of playing around with different sounds and listening to how they sound when strung fluidly together is something every musician and composer discovers first in childhood. “I wanted a toy that allowed children to discover for themselves how music was actually made.”
At first, Seola chose a train as the vehicle for his concept for symbolic reasons: iI’s a classic kid’s toy with a popular musical heritage in children’s songs. But a train noisily going down a railroad made up of a diverse series of tracks is a satisfying metaphor for the way music itself is played. The concept coalesced itself around the train as a symbol.
Seola’s original design envisioned a wooden train with its cowcatcher replaced with the tuned teeth of a music box. Whereas a music box plays songs by passing these teeth over a revolving cylinder speckled with upraised notes, Seola wanted his train tracks to accomplish the same task.
His concept completed, Seola uploaded a crude video of what he called “The Original Sound Track” to YouTube, which soon after went viral on Twitter and various design sites.
Soon offers started pouring in to make the Seola a reality. There was only one problem.
“All sorts of companies contacted me looking to sell the Sound Track,” Seola says. “But none of them wanted to develop it, and for a toy like this, engineering is crucial. It started as a design concept, not a mass-market product. If I could make it myself, I would have.”
The Internet is full of concept designs that touch the popular imagination for a few days, only to have that imagination go unharvested. After a couple of years of quickening obscurity, Seola’s musical train seemed like it was on track for just that fate.
As one last try to get the Sound Track off the ground, the designer decided to submit the idea to Quirky, a New York–based company that socially develops interesting concepts with the goal of making invention accessible to everyone. Within six months of uploading the project, the Sound Track was on its way to becoming a reality.
“Quirky perfected the Sound Track,” Seola says. “They took my concept and made it commercial without compromising what I was trying to create.”
Improving upon Seola’s design, Quirky’s product engineers repositioned the Sound Track’s music-making comb and added a killer feature Seola had never thought of: the ability for kids to “reprogram” the train set’s tracks with any song they wanted, just by shifting pegs into different positions. Kids can either set the Sound Track to play classic nursery rhymes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or they can write songs of their own, which the train will then play back for them as they push it along the track.
“Kids love to see things happen right in front of their eyes, and hear things happen with their ears,” Seola says. “Music is so important for kids: it helps them develop important self-expression skills and improves their self-esteem. Since 2009, I’ve gotten emails from parents around the world asking where they can buy the Sound Track for their kids. And now, thanks to Quirky, I’m finally able to answer them.”
The Sound Track should be available for purchase from Quirky later this year.