We received an email from a singer-songwriter in Hawaii, asking exactly what the #MusicBricks “toolkit” is. How does it relate to performing or writing music? What exactly are the tools? Are they digital instruments of some kind? How can academic research contribute to excellent songwriting? All fair questions.
The simplest answer is that the toolkit incorporates a range of technologies that are building blocks for making things that can help songwriters, performers - or anyone else who wants to use or work with music in some way. They’re not musical instruments in themselves.
Much of the research that has created these bricks tends to be in the area of music analysis. Analysing audio signals and extrapolating information about them. And many (though by no means all) of the projects that have come out of #MusicBricks have been about enhancing and encouraging music participation - not simply adding to the arsenal of professional musicians. By this I mean things like increased access to participation in music for people with disabilities such as a limited range of movement, or the use of only one hand.
One of the bricks is a pitch detection tool. That’s been built into a device that can recognise what key a group of musicians are performing in, so that a beginner can join in using electronic instruments without simply hitting random notes. Another is an enormous indexed database of free sounds that can easily be integrated into any musical project. Another tool is a tiny computer board with wireless connection that senses movement, rotation and other input as well as having signal processing built in that can process music and sound with very low latency. The size of the processor means that it can be easily built into new types of musical instruments that respond to the movement of the performer or (for instance) into wearable devices.
The great thing about the bricks is that they are interoperable and can be put together in any combination in order to make any kind of new invention. The eleven projects we have supported so far have ranged from products for music consumers to gesture-driven musical performance interfaces.
The research doesn’t by itself necessarily help songwriters to create excellent songs, but the things that people make from the technologies developed by the research centres certainly add to the number of possible ways in which songwriters can express themselves.
One of the reasons we ensure that musicians and not just technologists take part in the hack camps we organise that feature the #MusicBricks toolkit is so that the things that get built are actually things that musicians find interesting, useful and meaningful - not simply new tech for the sake of new tech.