Designing Creative Musical Instruments - Part 1: Introduction

2018-03-24 - posted in: research, interaction-design, phenomenology, user-experience,

A while ago I did a little research about the features and interaction patterns that make some musical instruments appear more creativity-boosting than others. In other words, why is, or was, a piano more often chosen to write a symphony on than, say, an oboe?

(I‘m gracefully assuming this is true for the sake of argument, I admit I have no numbers backing this statement)

I‘m trying to condense my 2015 thesis „Designing Creative Electro-Acoustic Instruments“ into a few blog posts, in the hope that someone may find this useful.

The premise

So, what is the motivation for this research, what pain points does it try to address, what is the need it fulfills?

Following my musical composition and performance practice, I arrived at the conviction that the interaction patterns / interface an instrument displays directly shape how creative you are able to be with it. What do I mean by that? How is that quantifiable? To a degree, it is, as it turns out.

Creativity theory identifies (at least) 4 factors which can be taken into account for measuring what is called divergent thinking (cf TTOC):

  • Fluency: the ability, given a certain problem, to produce a large number of ideas.
  • Flexibility: the ability to produce ideas of many different categories.
  • Originality: counts novel ideas, i.e. compared to a comparison group. (Note that M. Boden (2003) distinguishes between historically and personally original ideas)
  • Elaboration: the amount of detail associated with each idea.

To arrive at relevant conclusions we need to consider phenomenology, interaction design and user experience of musical instruments, as well as creativity theory.

Phenomenology of Human-Technology Relations

In his seminal work on a phenomenology of technology, Don Ihde (1990) distinguishes between a few distinct human-technology relations, three of which are relevant for this discussion:

Embodied Relations

characterised by a quasi-fusion of user and technology, postulating a perceptual transparency, or withdrawal of the tool from consciousness.

A simple example can be found in optics: Eyeglasses enhance the wearer’s bodily capabilities while staying almost literally transparent and unnoticed, enabling her to see the world through the instrument.

In many acoustic instruments, especially those amplifying the human vocal capacities, such as wind instruments, this relationship can also be found. The technology disappears, but the nature of the subject-technology relation remains opaque: If the tool breaks, the relationship (the black box) becomes apparent and forces the user to focus on the tool rather than on its use.

Hermeneutic Relations

require the user to take interpretive action, i.e. to read the technology in some way. The terminus of perception is the instrument or what it displays to the user.

Now the technology-world relation becomes transparent: Reading a written text, one effortlessly exchanges letters for words and words for concepts of the referred-to worldly objects.

Similarly, on a piano keyboard, technically speaking there is no perceptual isomorphism between the position of the keys and the produced frequency, as is the case with a guitar fretboard. The isomorphism has become representational: One has to be able to read the abstract convention of the piano’s keys in order to produce the correct frequencies.

Here, the location of the black box is the technology-world connection – without a deep knowledge of the instrument, the relationship of key to frequency remains opaque.

Alterity Relations

refer to how humans relate to or with a technology, rather than experience the world through it.

The focal attention lies on the quasi-other (e.g. an automobile), an entity which is attributed objectness, i.e. a foreground quality as compared to the other relations, where technology is but an artefact to mediate a part of the world.

The technology itself becomes the perceptual terminus – there may, but need not be a relation to the world. Certain toys or computer games serve as a fitting example here: They refer, if at all, to an imaginary world and can exhibit quasi-animated behaviour, turning them into objects of fascination.

Computers as meta-machines come to mind, more often than not becoming objects of emotional focus, embracing or condemning the idiosyncrasies they exhibit.

Developing this line of argument further, I will contend that the most creatively exciting musical technologies lie on the continuum between hermeneutic and alterity relations, and that embodiment plays a minor, if not counterproductive role here.

The Role(s) of Electro-Acoustic and Computer Music Technology

The majority of music is unconceivable without the use of tools or technology. Indeed, since ancient times instruments have been employed to produce music, and have undergone a continuous evolution since then.

Obviously, electro-acoustic music is one of the more recent developments in the long tradition of instrument use. With the advent of recording technologies, what Ihde calls multistable development trajectories were already predetermined, the path to sampling and sound synthesis technologies laid out.

Pierre Schaeffer (1977) was one of the first to extend the definition of musical instruments for modern electro-acoustic technology, first analysing the patterns of traditional ones. He identified two main components:

  • permanence of characteristics (e.g. timbre), and
  • variations of values, such as abstract concepts (pitch, intensity, what he called „registers“) and concretization of personal playing potential (style, expressivity, imprecision)

Decades before we had to deal with the technical perfection of digital instruments (read: computers) and the thereby caused detriment of artistic expression, he identified the confusion thus brought about by a lack of balance of timbre, registers and playing potential.

Preparing the Research

Technologies are never completely neutral. The ideas and concepts of the instrument designers are bound to affect the creative process and compositional ideas themselves.

Of course, in many ways can the designed way of using it be transformed and boycotted (think Sachiko M, Christian Marclay, …), but even then, one could say, this abuse results from negating deliberate (or accidental) design decisions. Thus, music technology always tends towards an expressive closure by design.

While this holds true for all technologies, computers are even more predestined to prescribe human thinking and streamline creativity by automating work processes and cognitive offloading. Moreover, the rule-based systems that digital instruments are, inevitably lead to a decrease in expressivity; the focus on the tool’s parameters and inner workings, and the reciprocal detachment from the action’s terminus – the produced sound – result in a certain disruption of flow.

Additionally, as will be elaborated on below, musical instruments should also encompass the negative dimension of expression, error and bad playing, which is also often neutralised by overly rule-structured machines.

Hence, we need to closely survey the conditions that challenge users of music technology to develop their creative goals within the boundaries predefined by the instrument creator, while simultaneously yielding an optimum of expressivity.


Boden, M. A. (2003). The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms London ; New York: Routledge Chapman & Hall.

Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Magnusson, T. (2009). Of Epistemic Tools: Musical Instruments as Cognitive Extensions. Organised Sound, 14(02), 168–176.

Magnusson, T. (2010b). Designing constraints: Composing and performing with digital musical systems. Computer Music Journal, 34(4), 62–73.

Schaeffer, P. (1977). Traité des objets musicaux: essai interdisciplines. Éditions du Seuil.

This article was also posted on medium.

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