Engineering music: Rowan students score a melody for science

Engineering music: Rowan students score a melody for science

Musicians all, four electrical and computer engineering students at Rowan University are very comfortable playing a wide range of instruments:

Musicians all, four electrical and computer engineering students at Rowan University are very comfortable playing a wide range of instruments:

Guitar. Bongos. Ukulele. Table.

Table? Table indeed.

The team took on an instrumentation project in the College of Engineering in which they use a computer to allow them to “play” any kind of flat surface, a la the much-touted “Piano Stairs” in Stockholm.

Working under engineering technician Philip Mease in the College’s Music, Signals & Systems Studio-Laboratory, the brains behind the music are Dwight Bedford, 21, a senior from Hewitt; Daniel Houwen, 22, a senior from Mantua; Andrew Thompson, 22, a junior from Banner Elk, N.C.; and Ryan Winslow, 20, a junior from Ocean City.

A sound idea

Computer software, a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), digital cameras and a surface that acts as a screen are the heart of the effort. The students take photographs of a surface, such as a table or whiteboard or wall, and segment out sections of it, placing an object or drawing in or on each section. The objects are assigned a note using MIDI values. For instance, if there are a notebook, pen and cell phone on a table, each would get a separate note value. Then, anytime someone touches or points to an object, it will produce a sound.

The Rowan project differs from the Stockholm Piano Stairs, which instead of software use mechanical means to create sound. “The benefit of this is it’s highly modular and you don’t have to worry about replacing it,” said Thompson.

The team even programmed Leonardo da Vinci’s perfectly proportioned Vitruvian Man to play classical sounds as someone stands in front of the drawing and slowly moves his arms in the same arc as the figure in the artwork.

Music for a masterpiece

In the Vitruvian Interface project, the students used a digital camera to photograph da Vinci’s work as the background image. The team created “masks” over certain portions of it, and those masks correspond to notes. When a masked area is “covered,” say by a student moving his arm in front of it, a note plays.

Bedford and Houwen started the work in spring 2010 as part of a clinic, one of Rowan Engineering’s hallmarks that enables students to tackle hands-on projects from first-semester freshman year through graduation. Several other students have been involved in addition to the four doing the work this semester.

The project was a natural for several reasons.

“There’s a lot of crossover between music and engineering and signals and systems,” Thompson said.

Best of both worlds

Bedford said, “I got involved with this project because I wanted to have a way to incorporate what I am learning in engineering with my musical background.” 

“Combining music and electrical and computer engineering inspires students to learn advanced engineering concepts in a context that they find familiar and fun,” said Dr. Shreekanth Mandayam, chair of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Rowan. “In fact, we recently created a new freshman-level course called Signals & Systems & Music that combines music and engineering students and faculty in a lab-lecture-studio setting. In a semester-long class that includes ‘jam sessions,’ students learn the fundamentals of harmony and composition and how to synthesize digital music. The course is proving to be very popular with our incoming freshmen.”

Still, the latest Rowan technical music-maker isn’t ready for a concert — yet.

“There is a limitation on the kind of music you can play with it and how fast you can play a note,” Thompson said.

The team is optimistic though. “If it improves, it’s definitely marketable,” Houwen said. The team members have not decided whether they will pursue intellectual property rights for their work or open source it.

Other applications

Winslow said the technology in the instrumentation project could be integrated into a variety of products in addition to music, including lights and clips of video, enabling it, for instance to be incorporated into choreography.

Thompson said it also can be used in educational settings, for instance as an interactive learning device for people with disabilities (touch an item, receive feedback).

“This system can be used in a variety of ways depending on the application,” Bedford added. “Simple changes can make this go from playing music to letting teachers use this system to engage students in class.”

The team members also believe the project reflects well on their chosen field. “I think so often people think engineering’s hard, cold, books and numbers,” Thompson said. “Engineers can be creative. Engineering is creative.”