Learn to Play the Spine with Prosthetic Musical Instruments

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If you’ve never considered yourself to be musically inclined or simply don’t have the patience to take up an instrument, a research team at McGill University’s Input Devices and Music Interaction Lab may have invented a solution—by developing a series of “prosthetic instruments” that sprout directly from your body.

For the last three years, designers worked with musicians, dancers, composers and a choreographer to create these futuristic, straight-out-a-sci-fi-movie instruments. Emanating a ghostly glow, these translucent spines, rib cages and visors are attached to performers as they writhe and twist, eliciting various otherworldly sounds with each movement.

“We wanted to blur the boundary of when an instrument is an object and when it is part of the body,” said PhD researcher Joseph Malloch who worked on the project with Ian Hattwick. “Wearing these objects, the performers have to learn new gestures and modify their own gestures accordingly. If you had an external spine, you would move very differently.”


Using digital fabrication technologies like 3D printers and laser-cutters, the team composed around 30 working musical instruments with embedded sensors that allow the performer to control the sound manually as well as through motion. Wireless data transmitters on the devices send signals to an open-source peer-to-peer software system that changes the movements into sound.

“The important part of a musical instrument is not the instrument itself, it’s about the gestures which the instrument invites,” said Hattwich. “You’re gonna perform certain gestures because of the instrument you’re playing… We’re going really all the way in that direction. We’re creating these instruments that are all about the performer gesture.”

Aesthetic was extremely important to the designers. ”“We didn’t want them to look like they had been hand-crafted, but like they had been made by some imaginary futuristic machine,” Malloch said. Judging from these mystical extensions, mission accomplished.

Watch the full 15-minute documentary here.

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