Supporting Custom Musical Interface Design for Children with Disabilities

For this blog entry, I’ve taken a look at the paper by Samuel Thompson Parke-Wolfe, Hugo Scurto and Revecca Fiebrink on Sound Control: Supporting Custom Musical Interface Design for Children with Disabilities. I was immediately attracted to this topic, as I would like to work on the design of an application for children on the autistic spectrum as part of my master’s thesis.

“When offered to people with disabilities, music therapy can “provide a means of self-expression,””empower people by offering choices,””encourage and stimulate physical movement and co-ordination,””help child[ren] to listen,””nurture social interaction and communication skills,” and “excite imagination and creativity.”

The editors of this paper have conducted 8 workshops with music therapists and musicians to explore and test hands-on what children with disabilities need to achieve the desired goals in therapy.

It is important to keep in mind that these children have different needs and different thresholds for being overburdened and are using different ways of expressing these needs. It is therefore great that an open source program has been developed within the framework of this project, which has the goal of being highly customizable.

For this purpose they used the method of Interactive Machine Learning, whereby mechanisms could be adapted without much programming knowledge.

“A supervised learning algorithm learns the desired relationship between sensor data and sound parameters from these examples and produces a model capable of controlling sound as a user interacts with sensors in real time.”

The reasons for a highly versatile approach are:

  • Recognising and exercising agency:
    Recognising and exercising agency means that the children learn, that what they do has an influence on their environment.
  • Encouraging moving and listening:
    Through this the children learn conscious movement and the added value of conscious listening.
  • Supporting social aims:
    The children learn to express themselves, to let others participate and many other social aspects.

The goal of the collaboration between sound designers and music therapists was set very high: “The new technology should enable adults to configure instruments for a child very quickly (diverting the adult’s attention for under a minute at a time, ideally much less), and it should support musicmaking using a wide variety of physical actions and 193 ranges of motion. It should run on a standard laptop and require a minimum amount of custom hardware. Further, it should support a variety of soundmaking activities-not only playing melodies and triggering samples, but also other activities appropriate to diverse child preferences and educational or therapy goals (see Section 5).”

I found it very exciting that although the music therapists had less technical knowledge, they were still able to achieve highly diverse goals.

In the context of this paper, I take note of the importance of close cooperation with teachers, therapists and educators for my master project. Because they are in the field and know the reality of the children and what is feasible. Another insight is that you can build on existing research programs and resources and continue to establish them and not have to reinvent everything from scratch.