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Even The Tone Deaf Can Play This Instrument And Sound Like A Virtuoso

Meet Neo, an instrument that explores an intuitive, visual, and touch-based approach to playing music.

When Dutch designer Lola Gielen realized that she loved making music but was terrible at it, she thought, why not invent a dead-simple, foolproof instrument instead of toiling away for years to master something?

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During her research at the Design Academy Eindhoven, Gielen had a couple of breakthroughs. First, a lot of people can’t play traditional instruments; second, a lot of electronic instruments and synths don’t explore the tactility of sound—an essential part of the regular music-playing experience (like strumming a guitar).

“It’s a quality I missed in most digital instruments and music apps,” she says of designing a haptic interface. “But also because I think an instrument that is playable for everybody can be used in health care or education, for instance as sensory play for people with autism. So it was important that it was a tactile and visual experience as well.”

Dubbed Neo, Gielen’s instrument works like a barrel organ and explores an intuitive, visual, and touch-based approach to playing music—something that other designers have tackled, like the Tenori-on by Toshio Iwai and Yu Nishibori for Yamaha.

The instrument is punctuated with little divots that radiate from the center. Placing ball bearings into the divots tells the machine to play a specific note. Each pitch becomes higher the further from the center it sits. Gielen based the tones off of a Dorian scale so the notes would always be harmonious regardless of how they’re combined. Four external modules covered in silicone distort the sound. One changes the decay, another one plays notes outside the rhythm of the loop, one controls volume and speed, and another mimics the sound of wind when you move your hand through it.

Beside the obvious creative factor, Gielen could see Neo as an educational tool since it’s an easy and visual way to start with music. “I hope Neo can help people express themselves through music,” she says.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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