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Make Your Own MIDI MusicBox

  • by Rebekah Nelson on April 30, 2014
    If you have visited The Tech in the last two weeks, you may have noticed that we have turned the Hands-On Science Workshop into a music-making, Makey Makey powered mecca. The MIDI MusicBox allows guests to compose musical circuits and unleash their inner composer! In the workshop guests compose their musical masterpieces with foil tape, creating conductive sheet music that is then played by the MIDI MusicBoxes. 

    While creating conductive symphonies is awesome by itself, my favorite part of of the MIDI MusicBox is that anyone can build their very own MusicBox! So grab a friend and get ready to build!

    You’ll Need:

    a computer
    a simple Scratch program
    some cardboard
    scissors/box cutter
    various conductive stuff
         (paper clips, foil tape, pretty much anything metal)

    You May Want:

    some solid core wire
    more alligator clip wires
    a dowel
    a funnel
    a speaker
    needle nose pliers
    soldering iron/wire

    Making the Core of the MusicBox-

    1. Open the Scratch program. For those who are unfamiliar with Scratch, it is a programing language developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group from the MIT Media Lab. It’s straight forward, intuitive drag-and-drop design allows folks with no background in coding to jump in and create programs with ease. The program linked to here is a prototype we created to test the concept of the MIDI MusicBox. Feel free to remix this program, or create your own.

    2. Time to bust out your MaKey MaKey! The MaKey MaKey is an invention kit, developed by JoyLabz, that allows you to turn just about anything into a key. (There are tons of excellent tutorials/guides available about MaKey MaKey. Here, here, and here are just a few examples of what is available). Plug in the USB cord to the MaKey MaKey and your computer. 

    3. Connect the jumper wires into the MaKey MaKey W, A, S, D, F, and G ports. Note: Unbent paper clips are great jumper wire alternatives.

    4. Attach alligator clips to the ends of the wires.

    5. Clip alligator wires to the up and down arrow ports.

    6. Clip an alligator wire to the Earth port.

    7. Test your wiring. Click the green flag button on the Scratch program to start it. Hold the Earth wire with one hand, then touch the ends of the W, A, D, F, G, and arrow wires with your other hand. When you touch the ends the notes should sound. Right now, your body is completing the circuit!
    If you want to get fancy with your wiring, try out using just solid core wires instead of the jumper wire and alligator clip combo. You can also use regular stranded wire, but when you tin the ends they typically don’t fit into the MaKey MaKey ports. (Coating wires in a thin layer of solder is called tinning.) 

    Creating the Sensor-

    1. Connect eight more alligator wires to the Earth ports. You can do this lots of different ways; play around with the connections until you get it how you want. We liked using a folded bit of foil tape to make room for the alligator clips.

    2. Cut out a strip of cardboard around 5 or so inches long and about an inch wide.
    3. Clip all your alligator wires onto the cardboard strip in this order: W wire, Earth, A, Earth, S, Earth, D, Earth, F, Earth, G, Earth, Up Arrow, Earth, Down Arrow, Earth.

    4. Test your sensor by running your finger across while the Scratch program is running. When you bridge the gap between the note wire and the Earth wire you complete a circuit, which sounds a note. If everything is in the right order it should sound like Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.
    5.  You also may want to solder or bend some sort of round sensor end to your wires so they glide over whatever material they read. Here is a simple sensor made out of a piece of foil tape. Aluminium foil might make nice sensors too.

    For the MIDI MusicBoxes in the Hands-On Science Workshop, we ended up using bent copper wires as sensors.

    You can create any sort of housing you can think of for your MusicBox at this point. We made ours look a bit like a gramophone, with a hand-crank turning drum to play the sheet music.

    We also made an even earlier version that isn’t mounted so you can drag it across anything to create music.

    Mounting the Sensor (Optional)-

    The sensors of the MIDI MusicBoxes we use in the Hands-On Science Workshop are mounted on hinging arms. If you want to do something similar you can build an arm-like structure out of cardboard, like the one we built for our prototype. 

    Just make sure that your sensors are level- our prototype sensors didn’t work as well as we’d liked because they were uneven.

    If you decide to make an arm for the sensors, you may want to try out a spinning drum like this:

    Building an Amplifier (Optional)-
    The speakers in the MIDI MusicBoxes are pretty small, so we ended up using some fun farm funnels (say that three times fast) as gramophone horns.

    You could make something similar with any sort of funnel, or by rolling paper into a cone. Try out different materials for your amplifier- some things, like cardboard, will actually absorb the sound instead of making it louder. See what things you have around your house that work best.

    And there you have it, your own MIDI MusicBox! Now go make some music!

    Rebekah Nelson is the Programs Development Lead at The Tech Museum of Innovation