• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Got the Beat

Air Date: Week of

Tod Machover is a professor, classical musician and inventor at the MIT Media Lab who is overseeing the design of a new class of electronic instruments. These beat bugs, shapers and other musical inventions are now used by children, handicapped adults and orchestras around the world. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd reports on the new frontier of Hyper Music.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Among the things that distinguish humans as a species is our ability to make and recreate music with instruments as well as our voices. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a professor is gaining worldwide attention for his unusual inventions.

For the past two decades, Tod Machover has been designing a variety of electronic gadgets that help non-musicians learn about and create music in unconventional ways. Professor Machover has worked with the youngest of children to the severely handicapped to the most famous classical musicians and composers. And the common thread is that all of his inventions are turning traditional music on its ear. Living on Earth’s Susan Shepherd has our story.

SHEPHERD: Tod Machover’s office at MIT’s media lab is crammed with inventions that look a lot like toys, but they’re really instruments designed to teach kids about music in non-traditional ways. Some of the gadgets focus on beat and rhythm. Others teach kids how to invent new sounds and lets them compose their own music. And some offer kids the chance to create something entirely new.

MACHOVER: It’s one thing to turn kids into musicians and performers and composers. But there's no reason we can't turn kids into instrument designers and inventors of new kinds of music play also.


SHEPHERD: Take, for example, the beat bug. The beat bug is a palm-sized plastic invention that looks like a ladybug complete with antenna. Machover calls it a toy with personality.

A beat bug (Photo: MIT Media Lab)

MACHOVER: It’s actually a little like electronic hot potato since one of the reasons for passing it around is you never know when it’s going to come to you and you have to react right away.

SHEPHERD: Machover designed the beat bug with one of his students, Rob Einey, and like a proud father, Einey spreads eight of his creations out on a table and hooks them up them to a computer.

EINEY: You begin by creating a pulse, and then you can play a simple pattern like [ELECTRONIC BEATS].

And then it hops over to another of the beat bugs.


EINEY: And then you can use these antennas on it to control the pitch of the note and to ornament it with these extra notes. And when you’re happy with your transformation of it you hit it again and it jumps over to another beat bug.

SHEPHERD: And then the next child whacks the beat bug and creates yet another rhythm. Like all of the gadgets the Media Lab makes for children, the beat bug is designed to remove the often huge threshold of technical difficulty that normally separates a child from the ability to learn traditional musical instruments. The point, Machover says, is to give a child something that doesn’t - by nature - limit his or her skills. The more the child plays, he says, the better he or she gets.

MACHOVER: Often what we do is set up a workshop where you work with a group of kids maybe every day for a week leading up to a concert. Then you can really do things like start with clapping and think about how rhythm works and play some rhythm games, and then finally a piece that’s written that they really have to practice.


SHEPHERD: Tod Machover is a little like one of his beat bugs. He starts with an idea, then sends it off to someone else who changes it and sends it back. Then Machover lets it go without knowing or fearing the consequences.

MACHOVER: I mean, obviously, part of it is making a stab at putting things out in the world, which we think are worth using as models and worth sticking. And also, realizing that you put these things out there and the way people react to them and what they build in relationship to it and what it becomes is out of our control, of course.

SHEPHERD: The ideas that spill out of Machover and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab have attracted high praise. The New York Times calls Machover “brilliantly gifted.” The French Cultural Ministry has awarded him the equivalent of its Pulitzer Prize. And symphony orchestras are now incorporating Machover’s lab instruments in their performances.

[MUSIC: Tod Machover “Nature Suite” TOY SYMPHONY (BBC Broadcast – 2002)]

Tod Machover with music shaper (Photo: Webb Chappell)

SHEPHERD: A few years ago, one of Machover’s graduate students, Hugo Solis Garcia, invented an instrument called a shaper.


SHEPHERD: A Shaper is a round soft ball that looks like a sea creature and is designed for kids not old enough, or dexterous enough, to play a traditional musical instrument well.


SHEPHERD: To create music with a shaper all you have to do is squeeze it, and the computer feeds back a corresponding sound.


SHEPHERD: The idea behind the shaper, says Hugo, is to let children improvise based on what they hear.

GARCIA: Musicians are playing, they are playing the score and everything – and then the children say, “okay, I like what the trumpet is doing now, I want to talk with the trumpet.” So I have my instrument and then I talk with the trumpet, no?


[MUSIC: Tod Machover “Nature Suite” TOY SYMPHONY (BBC Broadcast – 2002)]

SHEPHERD: In this BBC recording of Machover’s Toy Symphony, performed by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra with violinist Joshua Bell, you can hear shapers being played live by children on stage.


SHEPHERD: New instruments are only part of Machover’s plan for getting children interested in music. Part of this team’s work is also focused on prompting kids to write their own compositions using a computer program called “Hyperscore.” This program allows people with no knowledge of music to create a symphonic score by simply drawing on a computer screen.

Hyperscore Screen Shot (Photo: MIT Media Lab)

Hyperscore can be taught in just a few minutes, and the MIT Media Lab has provided the software to children around the world.

JOHAN: So, basically, you start with a little window like this.

SHEPHERD: Grad student Tristan Johan shows me how anyone using Hyperscore can create notes by clicking onto a little musical graph on a computer screen, listening back, and then deciding how to alter the sound.


SHEPHERD: It’s possible to change the length of the notes:


SHEPHERD: Or, change the tempo:


SHEPHERD: Then, when the composer is satisfied with the musical phrase, it’s assigned a color and the phrase will be repeated over and over.

JOHAN: And you can also bend the line so then the pitch changes.

SHEPHERD: The result is a musical composition, like this work written by a 14 year old boy from Dublin, called “The Attack of the Headless Chickens.” This is the computer-generated version.

[MUSIC ON COMPUTER: “The Attack of the Headless Chickens”]

SHEPHERED: This is the version performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland.


SHEPHERD: Hyperscore proved so successful at teaching children how to compose that the MIT Media Lab decided to take the program to adults at Tewksbury State Hospital, a residence in Massachusetts for people with long-term disabilities.


SHEPHERD: Dan Elsie is thirty years old and has lived at the hospital for the past four years. Wheelchair bound, he can’t use his arms and legs. They are curled up, thin and lifeless. His head bobs around on a neck that doesn’t seem sturdy enough to hold it. He’s been physically disabled since birth, but there isn’t anything wrong with his mind. Elsie communicates via a computer. There’s a sensor strapped to his forehead, which he uses to pluck away - one letter at a time - on a screen attached to his wheelchair.


SHEPHERD: Using Hyperscore with this painstaking process Elsie wrote this composition called “Our Musically.” His piece was performed at the hospital by the Lowell Philharmonic, which was invited to play residents' compositions.

[MUSIC: Elsie’s composition]

SHEPHERD: After the performance Elsie, his computer speaking electronically for him as he types in the words, celebrates with Adam Boulanger, the student who helped him learn the Hyperscore program.

ELSIE: I want to say think you for letting me try.

BOULANGER: Dan, well, thank you for letting us work together, for letting us compose together. It was great. It really was.

SHEPHERD: Beyond the hospital and the classroom, you can also find the influence of Machover’s work in the rarified world of classical music. Machover has collaborated with Yo Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, and, more recently, with the Israeli-born cellist Matt Haimovitz.

HAIMOVITZ: Tonight I’m going to be playing John Cage arrangements of everything I normally play (Laughter).


SHEPHERD: Haimovitz has spent the last year touring bars, punk rock clubs, and coffee houses with a repertoire that includes Bach, Machover, and Jimi Hendrix. On this night, he performs at TT the Bears in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the crowd ranges from 18-year-old college students to 70-year-old classical music lovers.

[MUSIC: Tod Machover “Begin Again Again” HYPERSTRING TRILOGY (Oxingale – 2003)]

SHEPHERD: The last time they teamed up, Haimovitz performed Machover’s composition “Hyperstring Trilogy” which features the hypercello, another Machover invention. The hypercello is a flat wooden instrument shaped like a cello that’s connected to a computer. As Haimovitz plays sensors embedded in the bow collect information about his technique, measuring speed and pressure, and transforms the data via a computer program to create different effects.



SHEPHERD: On an overcast morning following his late night performance Haimovitz meets Machover at an outdoor cafe in Harvard Square.

HAIMOVITZ: Are you getting rained on?

MACHOVER: Some really big piece of water or liquid just fell on my shoulder.

HAIMOVITZ: It might be an idea [LAUGHS].

MACHOVER: Yeah, an idea, that’s right.

SHEPHERD: Under an umbrella, drinking tea, they talk about their next joint project.

MACHOVER: One idea is to create this…

SHEPHERD: Machover wants to design a new instrument made of giant strings and pipes. He wants Haimovitz to stand inside it and play his cello, so that his motions trigger notes and tones from the huge contraption.

MACHOVER: It just all of the sudden occurred to me that if we built a sculpture around you and the sculpture was literally strings that could be vibrated and maybe things that could be resonated and things that could be struck or hit and there wasn’t anything coming out of a loudspeaker. This was the instrument, this environment.

HAIMOVITZ: So this is also acting as a resonating chamber?

MACHOVER: I think resonance would be part of it.

SHEPHERD: But Haimovitz is pushing for something different – he wants a new technology that will help him on tour, something that will add to the excitement of being in a small setting playing music that takes the audience to new places. In the end, Machover will want to try out both ideas.

MACHOVER: What can I do that uses all this emotion and thought that’s inside me that maybe not -- it’s hard to choose the right adjective -- it’s not better than what you could do just with a cello because Bach did everything you could ever want to do with a cello, but there is a different kind of a parallel path, a different kind of richness and complexity in this idea of rich life-changing activities that are also very direct. I think it’s exactly the same reason that I build these hyperinstruments.

SHEPHERD: For Machover’s next project he’ll put a new hyperscore-written piece on the Internet several months before a concert in San Diego. People can listen to his piece on the web, make changes to it, even compose their own versions.

MACHOVER: I also want to do this before I start writing this next opera. So, let’s get started.

HAIMOVITZ: Let’s get started.

SHEPHERD: Machover wants to start changing people’s lives immediately – while he’s drinking tea, while he’s living his abundant life. For Living on Earth, I’m Susan Shepherd.




Tod Machover website

Hyperstring Trilogy

Download Hyperscore

Listen to Song of Penance: Reflective from the CD Hyperstring Trilogy [mp3]
Listen to an excerpt from Toy Symphony [mp3]">


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth