How to design more accessible musical instruments?

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

Music transcends many of the barriers that divide us, reaching beyond the written word to reach deeper resonance across cultures and national borders. Some instruments were purposely built to provide musicians with disabilities the opportunity 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 across three octaves with just two fingers. The unique layout and design means the player does not need prior 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 musicians with disabilities.

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

But musical instruments are not always designed with this universality in mind, especially when it comes to people’s physical limitations. At Design Partners, we focus on developing products that elevate human potential, so we realized this was an area that needed to be explored. We also have a number of passionate musicians on our team, so we decided to investigate how design influences positive change in this space. We wanted to know what could be done during 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 organization that develops high-quality accessible music technology (AMT), an innovation that enables people with disabilities to play music. Sound designer Yuri Suzuki contributed as well as the inventor of the electromagnetic acoustic instrument Segulharpa, Úlfur Hansson.

Here’s what we discovered.


Be transparent about obstacles

Another instrument concept from Design Partners. Aura generates unique sounds for its individual user by analyzing their physical characteristics and movements. Performance and sound are seamlessly fused as the waves of music roll over the player.

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

Multi-instrumentalist and award-winning designer Tim Palm, aka DJ Arthro, echoes this in our report. He explains that if manufacturers recognize 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 that it is accessible, it is better to say that this device is accessible for this kind of need. Labels like “this instrument works for blind people” or “this amount of pressure needed” could really help. »

Reshape Music, a study by music charity Youth Music, found that 63% of music retailers surveyed were unaware even of the existence of instruments specifically designed for the needs of people with disabilities. If transparency around barriers were addressed and instruments were designed with a clear description of the accessible issue they address, this problem could be alleviated. We would likely see an increase in awareness from retailers who can then offer practical advice on accessible devices.


Don’t make the mistake of predicting what people’s usage 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, develops this point. He says, “Not all musical instruments are made for everyone, and every human being has their own way of playing music. Every person has a different passion – some want extra features, that’s why we see people making their own modifications to instruments.

It is impossible to create a device that can work perfectly for everyone. But a highly accessible instrument should have the flexibility to adapt to various needs. Tim Palm stresses the importance of modularity. “Manufacturers need to give options, so users can remap buttons or create their own interfaces,” he says. Many modern musical devices are beginning to recognize this problem by providing software that allows users to reprogram or change the behavior 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. Flexible designs – whether modular or adaptable – will allow people to use the product in different ways.


Lead and finish with accessibility front and center

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

It is important to recognize that accessibility is not an accessory, but rather an integral part of the design and problem solving process. Musician and disability and human rights activist John Kelly recommends restructuring the signing process to include accessibility checks involving people with lived experiences of disability. Developing an accessible design unit might also be a good idea.

Good design practice should always involve prototyping, testing, and iterating — an optimal approach to ensuring the final experience deliberately fits into people’s lives. At Design Partners, we start by building a diverse panel of users invested in the subject. This approach gives the designer direct experience and a better understanding of what is needed to create a universal design. Not only does this provide essential insight into obstacles, but it also helps accelerate momentum in exploration and decision-making. Dialogue is paramount in this dynamic – being able to establish a common language and set of shared values ​​early on will allow for a smoother deployment of any design.


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


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