A person holding a giant wooden desk with a pattern of dots and concentric circles

SEGULHARPA: This round wooden instrument is a magnetic harp. Its inventor, Úlfur Hansson, designed it so its 25 strings are controlled by magnets. It can be played by pressing metal “keys” at the bottom or by using a computer.

SAGA SIG

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: PS1.A

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 7

TEKS: 6.6A, 7.6A, 8.5A, 8.5B, C.5A, C.5B

Invented Instruments

People of all ages compete to create new instruments—using everything from magnets to LEGO bricks

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT ways you could design and build your own musical instrument.

TOLGAHAN ÇOGULU/GEORGIA TECH SCHOOL OF MUSIC

LEGO MICROTONAL GUITAR: Atlas Çoğulu strums on his invention—a guitar with a fretboard made from LEGO pieces.

Atlas Çoğulu was only 7 years old when he came up with an idea for a new musical instrument. He’d been playing with a pile of LEGO® bricks on his living room floor in Istanbul, Turkey, when inspiration struck. He realized he could assemble the plastic bricks into something that looked like the fretboard of a guitar.

A fretboard runs the length of a guitar’s neck and is studded with ridges. These ridges, called frets, allow players to create different tones as they press down on a guitar’s strings. Ten years earlier, Atlas’s father, Tolgahan, had invented a guitar with a special type of fretboard. It had movable frets, which slid up and down to produce a wider range of notes called microtones. Atlas wondered: Could someone build a version of his father’s adjustable fretboard...out of LEGO bricks?

Atlas Çoğulu was only 7 years old when he thought up a new musical instrument. He was playing with a pile of LEGO® bricks on his living room floor in Istanbul, Turkey. That’s when an idea struck. So he put the plastic bricks together into a new shape. It looked like the fretboard of a guitar.

A fretboard runs along a guitar’s neck. It’s studded with ridges called frets. Frets allow players to create different tones as they press on a guitar’s strings. Ten years earlier, Atlas’s father, Tolgahan, had invented a guitar. It had a fretboard with movable frets. They slid up and down to produce a wider range of notes called microtones. Atlas wondered: Could someone build a fretboard like his father’s, but out of LEGO bricks? 

TOLGAHAN ÇOGULU/GEORGIA TECH SCHOOL OF MUSIC

At first, Atlas and his father tried using store-bought LEGO blocks to bring Atlas’s vision to life. But they realized that the base of their fretboard wasn’t the right shape. They decided they needed a customized baseplate and frets. They teamed up with an engineer who created the pieces using a 3-D printer—a device that prints layers of material to produce solid objects. They attached the baseplate to a guitar and filled it with colorful LEGO blocks. When they clicked the frets into place, Atlas was able to pluck out a tune. His idea worked!

Three years after Atlas dreamed up his design, the father-son duo submitted their creation to the 2021 Guthman Musical Instrument Competition. This event has been held annually for the past 12 years, and it’s never boring, says Jason Freeman. He’s a music and technology professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, which organizes the contest. Competitors from all over the world submit original instruments made out of things like Hula-Hoops, holograms, and even Jell-O (see Fan Favorites). Every year, the wide range of inventive designs forces the judges to grapple with an important question: What, exactly, makes something a musical instrument?

Atlas and his father tried to bring Atlas’s idea to life. At first, they used only store-bought LEGO blocks. But the base of their fretboard wasn’t the right size or shape. They decided they needed a specially made baseplate and frets. So they worked with an engineer to create them. They used a 3-D printer—a device that prints layers of material to produce a solid object. They glued the baseplate to a guitar and filled it with colorful LEGO blocks. Then they clicked the frets into place. Atlas was able to pluck out a tune. His idea worked!

Three years after Atlas got his idea, he and his father entered their creation in the 2021 Guthman Musical Instrument Competition. This event has been held every year for the past 12 years. It’s never boring, says Jason Freeman. He’s a music and technology professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, which holds the contest. People from all over the world enter original instruments. They’re made from things like Hula-Hoops, holograms, and even Jell-O (see Fan Favorites). Every year, the judges see a wide range of clever designs. This forces them to consider an important question. What, exactly, makes something a musical instrument?

THE SOUND OF MUSIC

For Monica Lim, a composer from Melbourne, Australia, an instrument is “anything that you can use to intentionally make sound.” Even your body can be an instrument, she says: You just need to snap your fingers, tap your feet, or clap your hands.

Lim co-invented an electromagnetic piano that took third place at this year’s Guthman competition. It uses electromagnets—created by passing electricity through a wire surrounding a piece of metal—to vibrate the piano’s metal strings. The vibrations generate sound waves (see The Shape of Sound). That creates a clear, mellow tone, which continues to sound until the magnet is deactivated.

Monica Lim is a composer from Melbourne, Australia. For her, an instrument is “anything that you can use to intentionally make sound.” Even your body can be an instrument, she says. Just snap your fingers, tap your feet, or clap your hands. 

An electromagnetic piano took third place at this year’s Guthman competition. Lim co-invented it. The piano uses electromagnets. These are created by putting a wire around a piece of metal and passing electricity through the wire. The electromagnets vibrate the piano’s metal strings, and the vibrations produce sound waves (see The Shape of Sound). That creates a clear, mellow tone. It continues to sound until the magnet is turned off.

KONFIR KABO

ELECTROMAGNETIC PIANO: This invention, created by Monica Lim (left), David Shea (right), and Mirza Ceyzar (not pictured), is an attachment for an acoustic piano. It uses magnets to vibrate the piano’s strings and hold the notes indefinitely.

Strumming a guitar, striking a drum, or honking a horn will also produce sound waves. Each object sounds different, though. That’s because all sounds have different features, like duration, frequency (number of vibrations per second), pitch (our perception of how high or low a note is), timbre (tone quality), and volume. The sounds produced by an instrument depend on the instrument’s design.

Playing a guitar, hitting a drum, or honking a horn will also produce sound waves. But each object sounds different. That’s because all sounds have different features. Some of these are duration, frequency (number of vibrations per second), pitch (how high or low a note sounds), timbre (tone quality), and volume. An instrument’s sounds depend on its design.

TECH-Y TUNES

Most traditional instruments, like guitars, drums, and horns, are acoustic. Their sounds are created when the instrument vibrates. Newer instruments—like synthesizer keyboards and drum machines—are electronic. They generate sound through electrical signals. And some instruments, like electric guitars and this year’s first-prize winner, the Segulharpa, are a fusion of both.

The Segulharpa is an electronic harp invented by Úlfur Hansson, a composer from Iceland. It consists of a round box with 25 strings inside, which are surrounded by electronic circuitry. When a person touches copper discs inlaid in the instrument’s wooden exterior, it activates electromagnets that cause the metal strings to vibrate. That creates a mix of otherworldly acoustic tones. And the player doesn’t even have to touch the Segulharpa to make a sound—the instrument can also be controlled using a computer!

Most traditional instruments are acoustic. They vibrate to create their sounds. Guitars, drums, and horns are acoustic instruments. But synthesizer keyboards, drum machines, and other newer instruments are electronic. They produce sound through electrical signals. And some instruments are a combination of both. Examples are electric guitars and this year’s first-prize winner, the Segulharpa.

The Segulharpa is an electronic harp. It was invented by Úlfur Hansson, a composer from Iceland. The harp is a round wooden box with 25 strings inside. Electronic circuits surround the strings. Copper discs are set in the instrument’s wooden surface. When a person touches the discs, electromagnets switch on and cause the metal strings to vibrate. That creates a mix of fascinating acoustic tones. And players don’t even have to touch the Segulharpa to make a sound. They can also control the instrument with a computer!

BRIAN ALEXANDER

SYNESCOPE: This turntable makes music out of images. The instrument, invented by Brian Alexander, reads things like the color, contrasts, and brightness. Then it transforms that visual information into sound.

FROM DESIGN TO REALITY

Once an inventor decides on the form their instrument will take and how it will produce sound, the next step is to build it. But constructing a new instrument isn’t easy. It took Lim’s team a year to build a working prototype, or testable model, of the electromagnetic piano. “There were a couple of times when we used too much power,” says Lim. “We fried the electromagnet, and smoke started coming out of it!”

Michigan-based artist Brian Alexander earned second place in this year’s competition with his invention, the Synescope. His instrument lets you hear what images “sound” like. A picture is placed on a spinning platter. 

As it spins, changes in color, contrast, and reflectivity—how light bounces off a surface—trigger a computer to create a note, change the pitch, or adjust the duration of a sound. For Alexander, building the Synescope was a learning experience. He was constantly surprised by the sounds it made.

Above all, “you have to work hard to turn your idea into reality,” says Tolgahan Çoğulu, Atlas’s father and co-creator of the LEGO microtonal guitar. His and Atlas’s efforts earned them the “People’s Choice” award in the Guthman competition. “If you dream something,” says Tolgahan, “never give up.”

First, an inventor must decide on the form of the instrument and how it will produce sound. The next step is to build it. But constructing a new instrument isn’t easy. Lim’s team made a working prototype of the electromagnetic piano. This testable model took a year to build. “There were a couple of times when we used too much power,” says Lim. “We fried the electromagnet, and smoke started coming out of it!”

Brian Alexander is an artist in Michigan. His invention took second place in this year’s competition. The Synescope lets you hear what images “sound” like. A picture is placed on a spinning platter. As the picture spins, a computer detects changes in color, contrast, and reflectivity (how light bounces off a surface). These changes tell the computer to create a note, change the pitch, or adjust the duration of a sound. For Alexander, building the Synescope was a learning experience. The sounds it made constantly surprised him. 

Above all, “you have to work hard to turn your idea into reality,” says Tolgahan Çoğulu, Atlas’s father. He and Atlas worked hard on the LEGO microtonal guitar. Their efforts earned them the “People’s Choice” award in the Guthman competition. “If you dream something,” says Tolgahan, “never give up.”

DESIGNING SOLUTIONS: Think about the design of your favorite instrument and how it generates sound. Use it as inspiration to brainstorm ideas for a new instrument.

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