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Instrument-Making as Creativity: A Phenomenology of Digital Musical Instrument Design

Published onJun 27, 2022
Instrument-Making as Creativity: A Phenomenology of Digital Musical Instrument Design


Instrument-Making as Creativity: A Phenomenology of Digital Musical Instrument Design

Author keywords

NIME, doctoral consortium, creativity, phenomenology

Research question/s/problem

Emergent technologies have significantly impacted creativity in many different domains (Mishra & Henriksen, 2018) with the interdisciplinary field of digital musical instrument (DMI) design being no exception. The development of new technologies that augment and redefine musical creativity is nowhere more intensified than the NIME community. By examining the creative experiences of designers in this field, we can better understand how knowledge from different disciplines is integrated into interdisciplinary design while uncovering ways to support creativity and learning in other emerging multidisciplinary spaces.

The purpose of this phenomenological inquiry is to explore the creative experiences of advanced digital musical instruments designers and will be guided by the following questions:

  • How do DMI designers leverage musical and technological knowledge throughout the DMI process?

  • What are DMI designer’s perceptions of creativity in their work?

  • How do designers describe the processes they use while designing and building DMIs?


While traditional theories locate creativity within the individual (Guilford, 1950), many scholars have come to honor the social and cultural nature of creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). In music, Burnard (2012) expanded on these socio-cultural notions of creativity to identifying multiple ways individuals can generate musical creativities which include technology-rich activities such as DJing and video game sound design. Burnard describes a spectrum of practices that cultivate musical creativities that center around forms of authorship, mediating modalities, and practicing principles. For example, DJ cultures include collective and culture-specific forms of authorship, are mediated through re-composition and digital sampling that frequently include entrepreneurial practice principles. Using Burnard’s model, I argue that DMI design is an interdisciplinary mode of creativity that integrates both musical and technological knowledge.

By studying the practices of advanced practitioners in any field, scholars and educators can abstract pedagogical strategies and simplified procedures for novices. Just as it is important that DMI designers consider the learning and skill development of users as they engage with new gestures and devices (Marquez-Borbon & Martinez Avila, 2018), educators must also understand how to scaffold learning within technology-enhanced environments (Sharma & Hannafin, 2007). Studying DMI design through this lens will elucidate how designers make creative decisions, balance musical and technological knowledge, and consider the learning and skill development of users as they engage with new interfaces.



This study aimed to elucidate the lived experiences of advanced DMI designers and the ways they leverage musical and technological knowledge to make creative decisions in DMI design. Phenomenological methods have been used to explore the experiences of individuals at many musical, educational, and technological intersections including the experiences of computer scientists who have persisted with serious classical music-making (Shaked, 2019), university musicians in an iPad ensemble (Verrico & Reese, 2016), and women music education scholars in an online professional development community (Pellegrino et al, 2014). Phenomenology was a suitable research method for this study because this method seeks the reality of the individuals’ narratives as well as their experiences and feelings about specific phenomena, in this case DMI design (Moustakas, 1994). Additionally, phenomenology is the study of the lifeworld, or the life and experiences an individual knows best. This type of inquiry has the power to uncover and describe a deeper understanding of a specific phenomenon (van Manen, 2014).

Twenty scholars who have presented their work at recent NIME conferences were recruited for this study. In addition to reviewing the scholarship and performances related to their work as DMI designers, I met with participants via a video conferencing platform for one-on-one 60-minute semi-structured interviews (Spradley, 1979). The interview questions covered educational backgrounds, music training and participation, technological exposure and practice, learning and mentorship, as well as personal experiences throughout the design process. During these interviews, participants were invited to engage in a video stimulated recall activity (Rowe, 2009) where we synchronously viewed a musical performance of their DMIs while they described their experiences as they related to the creative, musical, and technological decisions made during the design process. I am using Moustaka’s (1994) modification of van Kaam’s method (1966) to analyze the data which features listing every relevant expression from the data set, clustering and thematizing the invariant constituents, and developing a composite description of the phenomenon. Emergent findings will be described and implications for designers and educators will be explored.

Expected outcomes

Findings from this study will highlight the ways musical and technological knowledge are balanced when exploring emergent technologies within a variety of new contexts. A clearer picture of the many creative decisions that make up a complex DMI design process will also be extracted. As we continue to better understand the ways technology relates to creativity, we can continue to empower designers, educators, scholars, and students while developing new and innovative methods that support multidisciplinary learning and creativity.

Through participation in the Doctoral Consortium, I would like to request feedback on the analytical methods used in this study. Additionally, I would appreciate guidance on possible applications of my findings both within the NIME community as well as in other related fields.


Burnard, P. (2012). Musical Creativities in Practice. In Musical Creativities in Practice. Oxford University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 313–335). Cambridge University Press.

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. The American Psychologist, 5, 444–454.

Marquez-Borbon, A., & Martinez Avila, J. P. (2018). The problem of DMI adoption and longevity: Envisioning a NIME performance pedagogy. Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, 190–195. https://nottingham- envisioning-a-nime-performance-pedagogy

Mishra, P., & Henriksen, D. (2018). Creativity, Technology & Education: Exploring Their Convergence. Springer International Publishing. 70275-9

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological Research Methods. SAGE.
Rowe, V. C. (2009). Using video-stimulated recall as a basis for interviews: Some experiences from the field. Music Education Research, 11(4), 425–437.

Pellegrino, K., Sweet, B., Derges Kastner, J., Russell, H. A., & Reese, J. (2014). Becoming music teacher educators: Learning from and with each other in a professional development community. International Journal of Music Education, 32(4), 462–477.

Rowe, V. C. (2009). Using video-stimulated recall as a basis for interviews: Some experiences from the field. Music Education Research, 11(4), 425–437.

Shaked, V. (2019). Computer Scientists with Serious Music Avocations Share Their Thinking. Leonardo, 52(5), 468–473.

Sharma, P., & Hannafin, M. J. (2007). Scaffolding in technology-enhanced learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments, 15(1), 27–46.

Spradley, J. P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

van Kaam, A. (1966). Application of the phenomenological method. In A. van Kaam (Ed.), Existential foundations of psychology. University Press of America.

van Manen, M. (2014). Phenomenology of Practice: Meaning-Giving Methods in Phenomenological Research and Writing. Left Coast Press.

Verrico, K., & Reese, J. (2016). University musicians’ experiences in an iPad ensemble: A phenomenological case study. Journal of Music, Technology and Education, 9(3), 315–328.


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