Musical instruments with the MaKey MaKey

Added on July 6, 2014

Over the past week or so, the other Maker Corps Mentors and I have been facilitating a DIY musical instrument activity at the Omaha Children’s Museum’s Maker-Space. We ask the kids to think of an instrument that they would want to play (real or not), then help them construct them out of cardboard and aluminum foil.

Even without any sort of suggestion or prompting the vast majority of kids chose to make guitars or pianos. However, a handful of kids came up with some very creative and wacky instruments! Here are a few highlights that stand out to me:

  • One boy made a really standard piano, but was very particular about the order that all of the wires were connected in. Turns out he knew how to play real pianos, so he performed the main melody from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy for us!
  • Another kid made a sliding linear trombone that was made of two rolls of cardboard that slid in and out of each other. If I knew what he was trying to do earlier I would have had him add aluminum foil on the inside of the outer tube, then wrap the inner tube in foil to create a working slide instrument. But since I didn’t quite get it until he was done, I just had him add contact points to the outside.
  • Our pile of abandoned instruments contained far more pianos and drums than guitars, even though just as many (if not more) people made guitars!
  • I made a rolling pin music interface that let’s you roll a tube of cardboard over a pattern of aluminum foil to play music, similar to old player pianos.

Since we only had access to one computer we experienced some crowd control issues on the first couple days as too many kids wanted to test out their interfaces at once. The obvious solution is to bring in more computers, but getting this done is quite a challenge at our Museum. Instead, we reduced the number of tables in our space and put up a barrier to prevent mobs of kids from coming in at once.

Secondly, the computer that we do have access to is very underpowered and struggled to run anything other than the most basic piano from the MaKey MaKey website. I found several other music games online, but could not access most of them due to a very bad WiFi connection. The ones that I could access maxed out the memory capabilities of the computer. So no matter what the guests made, they had to play a piano on the computer. Somewhat unfortunate, but maybe I can recommend a better one to the management.

Activity instructions and notes

If you’d like to repeat this activity at your space, here are the steps we worked out, along with some notes about what worked for us for each step.

  1. Demonstrate a working interface to the new guest and get them to understand what the activity is (making musical instruments out of trash, then using the computer to make music).
  2. Ask the guest to think of an instrument they want to make (real or not) – lots of guests will go with guitars or pianos, but try to encourage them to be creative an make a flute, or a tube, or a trombone, or something entirely fictional like a Dr. Seuss instrument.
  3. Find a piece of cardboard big enough for their interface and draw the shape of their instrument out on it.
  4. Cut out the shape of the instrument – let the kids use a good, strong pair of scissors. We used kitchen shears.
  5. Construct and attach buttons out of aluminum foil – sometimes they can wrap aluminum foil around thin features to make buttons, but usually they can make a ball and squish it to make a flat, sturdy button. Just be mindful of how much they use.
  6. Bring the interface to the computer and clip the wires from the MaKey MaKey onto the contacts. We pre-clipped alligator clip wires to all of the board’s functions so that the guest only has to connect one end of the wires to their buttons.
  7. Connect the guest to the ground bar of the MaKey MaKey and press buttons to make noise – sometimes we have the kids hold the ground wire, but many kids had a hard time understanding that they need to hold on to it while touching other buttons. Eventually we hit on the idea of using an aluminum foil bracelet and crimping onto their wrist to ground them.
  8. Unplug the alligator clip wires and let the guest take their instrument home. Initially we thought that this would be a difficult part of the process, expecting that many guests would become upset that they couldn’t take the MaKey MaKey or the wires. Instead we didn’t have any complaints at all, and kids were more than happy to just take their interface home!

[flickr-gallery mode=”photoset” photoset=”72157645071832110″]