Tunes to get you in the 'skoog'

Researchers have created unique technology to help give disabled people the power to express themselves in music

Elizabeth Buie

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A new musical instrument, unofficially called the "skoog" and shaped like a toddler's toy cube, has been invented for children with special needs by a team based at Edinburgh University.

The researchers claim the technology marks a world-first in its ability to give disabled children - or adults - real power of expression in their music-making.

Pupils at special schools in East Ayrshire, who have helped the team, led by Nigel Osborne, in the skoog's development, have reacted with delight. Staff report a significant impact on the children's communication skills, confidence, concentration and creativity as a result of their work with the instrument.

The project is part of a wider research programme being led by the Tapestry Partnership into the educational and health benefits of the creative arts. It involves four local authorities - Fife, North Lanarkshire, North and East Ayrshire. This particular initiative received a grant for pound;195,000 from Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

Now that the prototype has been developed, a company, with the support of Scottish Enterprise, will to be set up to bring it to the commercial market.

Skoog's public launch is expected to take place at a Tapestry conference at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in May, when 1,000 children will perform music on an Afro-Scottish theme, led by pupils from Hillside and Park special schools in East Ayrshire.

Professor Osborne, a director of Tapestry, who is world-renowned for his work in music therapy, particularly with children who have been the victims of war and conflict, has been working with Ben Schogler, who has a background in music and psychology, and David Skulina, a physicist who specialises in music and IT programming.

Together, they have designed an instrument based on a sensor covered with a coating which makes it sensitive to touch but tough enough to resist strong handling. The sensor is linked to a computer, which takes in information about how slow or fast, soft or hard, and from which direction the player is touching the sensor. In essence, there is a virtual instrument inside the computer.

The computer software translating the hand movements on the sensor into expressive sound is based on a "neuron mathematics of movement" modelled by seabirds in their ability to judge their flight and trajectory into the sea.

Dr Schogler says the main difference between this and the technology used for most other forms of musical therapy is that it does not use MIDI (musical instrument digital interface). The skoog is based on a new concept - expressive mathematics.

The instrument has been programmed to produce the sound of a flute, trumpet, bowed or plucked strings, clarinet and other instruments. It can be set for different levels of ability or range of movement. The research team was able to use the instrument with a boy who is bedridden and on a ventilator because of breathing difficulties, by making it sensitive to the slightest touch.

The cybernetics element of the design may prove of interest to the commercial music industry, while Professor Osborne hopes professional musicians will also be interested. Its potential for disabled children is relevant for adults, including the elderly with dementia.

Six-year-old Kieran Lindsay is registered blind, so he relies on his senses of touch and hearing to play the skoog.

Everyone at the school for children with complex special needs loves playing the instrument, but Kieran is more reluctant to let it go. Depending on the amount of pressure he exerts on the sensor, he can control how high or low, long or short, each note is.

With Professor Osborne taking the lead on his violin, Kieran accompanies him on the skoog, programmed to produce the sound of a flute. His delight is obvious, and his concentration lasts far longer than usual.

Jim McCaffrey, Hillside's headteacher, explains that his pupils were baffled at times by other forms of music technology based on sound beams - they couldn't see where they were coming from. This, however, is different, because it is based on their own touch and movement. His hope is that a wireless model of the prototype can be developed for use in the pupils' favourite, and most relaxing, environment - the pool.

Professor Osborne adds: "Most of the children can still move, however profound their difficulties. They can find a way of getting that movement onto the computer - their own expression naturally comes out. All these children are musical in the same way that other primary school pupils are. This is about finding a way to give them an opportunity to make music without taking too much personal risk."

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Elizabeth Buie

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