CIRMMT Distinguished Lecture | Sensorimotor skill and cultural factors in digital musical instrument design

Monday, September 12, 2022 17:00to18:00
Elizabeth Wirth Music Building Tanna Schulich Hall , 527 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montreal, QC, H3A 1E3, CA
Free Admission

"Sensorimotor skill and cultural factors in digital musical instrument design"

Andrew McPherson, Associate Professor at Queen Mary University of London, UK

For more information visit cirmmt.org


Every year, many new musical instruments are created in research and industry. New instruments are often promoted for technical novelty, range of sonic or expressive capabilities, or accessibility to novices. Amongst the dozens of instruments that have been released in recent crowd-funding campaigns, a common refrain is that the instrument allows anyone to easily make music, suggesting that a major barrier to widespread musical performance has been a lack of suitable instrument technology. However, most new instruments drop out of regular use after just a few years, while classic acoustic and electronic designs remain ubiquitous in many styles of music. Human factors are at least as important as technical ones in determining instrument uptake and longevity.

This talk will examine two specific human facets of new instrument design: sensorimotor skill and sociocultural factors. In the first case, it takes many years to achieve proficiency on an instrument, and a trained performer is unlikely to want to repeat the process afresh with an unfamiliar instrument. This talk will explore ways of designing new instruments which extend and repurpose existing expertise on familiar instruments. In the second case, instrumental performance is the locus of a rich set of aesthetic and social practices whose values should be considered at an early stage of any instrument design. The musical instrument thus takes on many different roles: as transducer of action to sound, as a mediator of the performer's intentions, and as the product of a larger musical ecology. Reconciling these perspectives will be a focus of this talk, which will include illustrative examples from the research in the Augmented Instruments Laboratory at Queen Mary University of London. Rather than propose a definitive set of guidelines, the talk will conclude with open questions and reflections for how instrument creators can consider these human factors throughout the design process.


Andrew McPherson is Professor of Musical Interaction in the Centre for Digital Music (C4DM) at Queen Mary University of London. A composer (PhD U.Penn 2009) and electronic engineer (MEng MIT 2005) by training, his research focuses on digital musical instruments, especially those which extend the capabilities of traditional musical instruments. Within C4DM, he leads the Augmented Instruments Laboratory, a research team investigating musical interface design, performer-instrument interaction and embedded hardware systems.

Notable projects include the magnetic resonator piano, an electromagnetically-augmented acoustic grand piano which has been used by dozens of composers and performers worldwide; TouchKeys, a sensor overlay which transforms the electronic keyboard into a nuanced multi-touch control surface; and Bela, an open-source embedded hardware platform for ultra-low-latency audio and sensor processing which spun out into a company in 2016. Andrew holds a research fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering which is co-funded by Bela. He will soon start a Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (funded by UKRI) entitled "RUDIMENTS: Reflective understanding of digital instruments as musical entanglements", which looks at the cultural implications of engineering decisions in music technology.

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