Alex Penman
Work About Photo

Trio makes it easy for kids to create music together. Simply grab an instrument, fit it into the center hub, and start playing with your friends.

Trio is a set of modular music devices designed to bring kids together and create music. The goal isn’t to replace traditional music theory lessons but rather spark an interest in open-ended creative exploration. Each device has its own unique sound and interactions to fit varying skill levels. They all connect into the central hub which syncs the time signatures, ensuring that while kids experiment with sounds everything remains musical.

Kids playing with Trio in all of its iterations. Make music together with Trio!

The Background
Trio was created over the course of 10-weeks for my final project at CIID. Drawing on my background in education — growing up with a teacher for a mom and my work in EdTech — it only felt natural to explore new ways of learning for kids. I mixed this with my love for music and began the project looking into how music could be used in non-traditional ways to aid learning in the classroom. Through research and four prototypes, I arrived at Trio.

Asking kids about their opinions on school helped me get an idea of which age group I wanted to design for and the challenges that would come with it.

Getting Into The Minds Of Kids
My initial exploration involved desk research around learning through play; the idea of kids learning about themselves and the world through open exploration. I was particularly drawn to this because it supports the development of emotional intelligence and collaboration, two things researchers say will be important skills for future generations to learn as technology makes data more readily available and common jobs obsolete.

To go along with the desk research, I sent out questionnaires to students and teachers to get their opinions on learning in the classroom. With responses from 116 different students, I decided to design for 6 to 8 year olds in order to get them excited about new methods of learning at a young age.

My first day working with students involved a drawing activity to see how they reacted to creative prompts.

Observing The Creative Process
From the beginning, I knew I would be working with the same class for the duration of the project due to the flexibility of the teacher. I decided to do a drawing activity with the class to gauge how they reacted to creative prompts and for all of us to get comfortable with each other.

During my research, Stiven Kerestegian, a former LEGO designer, told me, “for many kids a blank canvas is paralyzing.” Keeping this in mind, I first asked the students to draw anything they wanted. Then I asked them to draw things ranging from superheroes to a dragon at a birthday party.

Drawing with the students got me comfortable leading the class and helped me understand what they need to be most creative.

Drawing Activity Insights
This idea of a paralyzing blank canvas was validated by how the class reacted to my “draw anything” prompt. Most kids would initially copy the drawings of their neighbors, but as the activity went on, this occured less and less. They just needed to get their creative minds warmed up.

I also found these creative challenges were ways to find out what the kids were all interested in individually. The teacher was surprised when one of the quietest kids in the class got excited to talk about Superman when I asked them to draw a superhero. Being able to channel the interests of kids to keep them engaged was particularly powerful to me.

Using a Processing sketch and Spotify, I set out to see if kids made any connection between music and their emotions.

Prototyping Session 1
For my first prototyping session, I wanted to see how concepts could be implicitly learned through music. Drawing on my research in playful learning, I was attached to the idea that building emotional intelligence in children is a way to set them up for success in the future. So I designed two quick prototypes to test out if, in their mind, there was any correlation between music and emotion.

I began the session by playing various genres of music and asking kids to point to an emoji that they thought the music sounded like. I also created a Processing application for them to control musical scales according to emotions.

Though most of this prototyping session was very low energy, it helped me identify what was wrong with the interactions I created.

Session 1 Insights
As engaging prototypes, both of these failed to get the kids excited. They all lost interest pretty quickly and energy levels were low throughout the entire process. However, it did serve as a good learning moment for me moving forward.

I found that the level of interactivity of my Processing prototype didn’t match the expectations of the kids. By using knobs and sliders as an interface, it gave them the idea that more could be manipulated in the prototype than what was implemented. Their frustration was visible when the physical interaction didn’t match up to the output.

I created a custom sequencer web app to see how the kids enjoyed making their own music with a physical controller.

Prototyping Session 2
Learning from the mistakes in the previous prototype, I set out to try more interactive musical activities for the next round of testing. I wanted to understand if kids would actually enjoy experimenting with music before diving deeper into the concept.

I created a basic sequencer web app using Tone.js which the kids could control with a MIDI controller. Each pad on the MIDI controller would activate a different part of the sequencer in order to build a rhythm. Different emojis could be selected to change the sounds the sequencer made.

Though the activity was fun, the sequencer and emoji parts were hard for them to understand.

Session 2 Insights
This session went much better than the previous; energy was higher and the kids were more excited. I just needed to find ways to spark their interest and get them going. Along with this personal boost in morale for me, two major insights came out of it.

After another round of testing, music and emotions still didn't seem to be fitting together. It was feeling like I was forcing this extra learning on top of the musical process and it was distracting from the creative exploration. In addition, rather than letting them explore sounds and emotions on their own, I was dictating what each emotion should sound like by hard-coding in the sounds associated with each emoji.

I also found that while all the kids enjoyed having a physical controller to manipulate the sounds, most of them didn’t understand how a sequencer worked. Some of the more patient students stopped to listen and understand the patterns, but a lot of them enjoyed being able to hear the music change as they mashed buttons. Overall, it seemed like there wasn’t much thought into what they were creating.

Adding in two new controllers gave the kids more options to create together.

Prototyping Session 3
At this point, I took a step back and looked at why I explored emotions with music in the first place. The end goal was to build emotional intelligence which in turn helps collaboration and teamwork skills. So I decided to readjust and attempt to get kids to collaborate through music.

I built two interactive MIDI controllers to get the class to come together around music. The first was a touch sensitive keyboard which would cycle through the held down notes on beat. The second, a drum pad made of piezo stuck between pieces of foam. Using this instrument was the first time kids would be able to go off beat and make their own rhythm during the activities, a piece I thought was necessary to test out.

The different interacitons got the students to think about their music in new ways.

Session 3 Insights
Collaborating felt like a big success with the class. When I asked them if I could come back do more experiments, they all said I could as long as they got to play together again. This was a reassuring validation that my choice to focus on collaboration rather than emotions was the right one.

However, describing what the kids did as “collaborating” was a bit of a stretch. With only two playing together at a time, the kids would often fall into a leader role and a follower role. One would dictate how the song would go and the other would gladly play along. Not knowing what to make of this, I asked the teacher if this is something common. While she said it wasn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, it could be fixed by adding more kids into the equation to balance out the power struggles.

The final prototype was designed to physically bring kids together.

Final Prototype
The first focus of my final iteration was to improve the collaboration aspect. Taking the advice of the teacher, I decided to create another instrument so kids could play three at a time. To bring everyone together I created a form factor that physically gets the participants to gather around the center piece. By using this puzzle piece design, each instrument fits into the center hub and allows for the project to be expanded later to include new modules.

Up until this point, the instruments I had been testing with were quick creations. I wanted to take my learnings and develop three devices that created different parts of songs and had different styles of interactions. The goal was to have instruments that are easy to use but also have hidden complexities to make more intricate music as you become more familiar with the device. This led me to making Pio, the melody layer, Buzzo, the bass, and Rhythmo, the percussion.
Pio, Buzzo, and Rhythmo
Pio builds off of the touch keyboard prototype I used. Keys can be held down and the device will cycle through all the notes held down on-beat. A slider controls the octave and two knobs can change the echo and reverb of the device.

Buzzo uses a series of switches and buttons to manipulate a set pattern. It starts with a baseline bass line, and parameters such as swing, pitch, and randomization affect how it sounds.

Rhythmo consists of two drum pads that trigger sounds when hit. The sound of each pad cane changed with the knobs at the top. This was the only instrument which can go “off beat,” but through prototyping I found it was a good way to get the kids to stop and think about the patterns their partners were making.
Next Steps
I don't consider Trio be a finalized product; this is just where I ended my 10-weeks of working on the project. While overall I’m happy with the experimentation and process, there are some things in the final prototype that I would like to improve on:
  1. The interactions on each device are not only complicated for kids but also adults. They work in the sense that you can discover how to use them over time but they need more experimentation and testing in order to make them exciting enough for people to want to keep using them.
  2. There was a big jump from previous iterations to the final form. While I like the idea that Trio physically brings everyone around a common point, I think there are a lot more options to explore that I hadn't thought of yet. When you break it down, these are just a set of MIDI controllers synced together and placed in close proximity. I'd really like to look into how the form of musical devices can be reshaped to fit this purpose for the kids or how the instruments can change based on what other ones are connected around it.
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