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NIME Consortium Proposal: Developing a design framework for constructing an accessible musical instrument from an autoethnographic point of view

Developing a design framework for constructing an accessible musical instrument from an autoethnographic point of view

Published onJun 22, 2022
NIME Consortium Proposal: Developing a design framework for constructing an accessible musical instrument from an autoethnographic point of view

Developing a design framework for constructing an accessible musical instrument from an autoethnographic point of view

Author: Andrew McMillan

University of Auckland


NIME, doctoral, consortium, PubPub, template, Design of Accessible Musical Instruments (AMI), Autoethnographic research and design, further stimulate motivation and commitment to an instrument

Research question/s/problem

What are the specific needs to consider when creating a bespoke instrument designed for myself as a disabled musician? What is the interplay between design affordances and creative requirements?


This PhD is situated in the area of accessible musical instruments (AMI) and how we make them relatable for disabled musicians to have meaningful creative outputs and long lasting experiences with them. If we start with considering the design framework and process for creating new musical instruments for disabled musicians, there are particular demands placed on the relationship a musician needs to establish for a constructive and rewarding design to be beneficial, successful and long-lasting. Musician-instrument relationships are extremely important for establishing a strong connection as discussed by Nijs et al. (2013)[1] who considers embodiment and transparency signs of a successful relationship. When this happens, an artist or musician is not only inspired but finds qualities of enjoyment and engagement through the flow state, the theory discussed by Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi (2002)[2]. These qualities and the flow state create rewards or satisfaction which in turn lead to motivation and help establish a long-lasting and developing relationship between the musician and their instrument. As a disabled musician currently researching processes and frameworks to design my own musical instruments, my goal is to investigate how to create a strong musician-instrument relationship and how I can consider implimenting the realationship qualities within my creative practice and workflow.

Current thinking provides guidance for designing solutions for instruments by using a number of different design frameworks that consider such things as cultural influences and personal preferences, environments, goals, specifications and technological solutions. Lucas et al (2021)[3] discusses three different frameworks (MEP, HAAT, MPT) that cover different approaches combining combinations of these elements. Other approaches and thinking around these areas or considerations combine them in different ways to construct a framework for designing either DMIs or AMIs such as Morreale et al (2014)[4]. Although these frameworks provide valuable insights and practical guidance for designing, the musician-instrument relationship is currently considered within the goals, cultural aspects, personal preferences and environmental concerns. I feel more consideration and investigation should be given to how disabled musicians, such as myself, look to forge meaningful musician-instrument relationships. Designers could possibly look to investigate the deeper aspects of those relationships to implement into their processes and frameworks through processes such as cultural probes - which were first introduced by Bill Gaver et al (1999)[5]. These cultural probes could provide some insight into how this might be approached. The cultural probes were used to help stimulate or provoke inspirational responses and understand a subject beyond their needs and desires. This has been later reference by Tahiroglu et al (2020)[6] when they discuss understanding how completed DMIs serve as cultural probes as our relationships with these instruments develop through our working with them. But there are currently few, if any probes or means into the psychological or phenomenological experiences and values associated with establishing the strength of this musician-instrument relationship early in the design framework or process for AMI or DMI.

When we think about the technical solutions available for creating AMI and/or DMI, we are largely thinking of the interfaces that 'connect’ a performer with their instrument in ways that they can activate the sound. An extensive range of sensors now exist for designers to implement into creating interfaces for their instruments that can help performers/musicians access the ability to create, control and manipulate sonic events. This range of technologies that have  been introduced for accessible music making includes MIDI, physical controllers and tangible interfaces, gestural controllers and touchless musical instruments, camera-based systems and breath controllers. These combinations of sensors and interfaces have been adopted by many individuals, groups and communities, institutes and organisations when designing DMI and AMI. Emma Frid has provided insightful research to look into the usage, application and development across various groups utalising the available technology in studies that include a survey of inclusive instruments (Frid, 2018)[7] and a review of musical interfaces in inclusive music (Frid, 2019)[8]

Instruments and technology and their usages also inform and influence not only our creativity but our engagement and behaviours. Pointing this out, Waters (2021)[9] discusses how this is not just as creative individuals but also in ensembles or collectives. Waters goes on to state how it is important for those to be successful that interfaces do not create interruptions or obstructions for a musician or performer in engaging with the process of ‘musicing’. Another complication for sensors and interfaces can be the lack of tactility or feel to a performer when compared with acoustic or conventional instruments and can impact on our musician-instrument relationship. To help address this issue there has to date been investigations into creating tactile feedback for performers by C. Chafe’s (1993)[10] vibrotactile cues, and J. Roven and V. Hayward’s (2000)[11] augmented glove and Marshal and Wanderly’s (2000)[12] ‘Vibelotar’ and ‘Vibroslide’. These examples have used voice coils, transducers and mounted speakers into instruments to embed a sensation through vibro-tactile feedback from their instruments to the performer/user.

When it comes to utilising sensors and technologies as a disabled musician, I have found that since I began exploring their use alongside and/or with conventional and self designed instruments, I am constantly comparing my instrument relationships and creative experiences with performing as an able-bodied musician and performer, before my accident.

These experiences have lead to insights into the issues I now face with creating an instrument that is accessible as possible, yet provides a rewarding creative experience including the response and feel that drives creative curiosity and motivates applying myself to building a relationship with the instrument. I have found a mixture of benefits and issues through both using conventional instruments and adapting my access to them, and creating software instruments that use some form of interface as their control mechanisms. Through having the ability to assess and reflect on these benefits and issues, I am now placed in a position to research and design my own instrument. However, I wish to consider how I can add to a design framework a way to probe my musician-instrument relationship, and the experiences associated with that that determinate what contributes to a successful and long lasting experience. From defining a way to explore this I would like to add these probes to a current framework for designing.


Reserch & Design

My plan is to develop a design framework that considers all aspects that are required to create a meaningful and workable instrument for disabled musicians.

The research will start with self-reflection on how I consider what is important in establishing my musician-instrument relationship, what accessibility I wish to have for the instrument, how the instrument must feel for me, and how much control I wish to have of the instrument. Reading of current and past designs that work in this area, becoming aware of current designers and communities who are finding solutions and exploring existing technologies that can offer solutions generating the specifications required add the research feeding into the framework.

Evaluation - Autoethnography/Narrative

Evaluation of the framework will be essential, as it will take some working through, and possible multiple reworkings, to find the right approach to suit my personal desires of the instrument. Each of these evolutions of the framework will be recorded in an autoethnographic journal or log, along with diagrams.

The resulting research, the design itself and experiments leading to evaluations and improvements will be also recorded and an autoethnographic record of journalling audio and video recordings and diagrams created. I will then look to generalise my findings from the specificities of my case to create more broad design guidelines. These design guidelines will be available for future researchers, designers and disabled musicians when designing their own instruments.

Expected outcomes

To give personal insight into my experience as a disabled musician and designer

  • As a contribution I want to share my experiences as a disabled musician and somebody studying interaction design. I am wanting to give insights into how as a musician and designer I have been discovering benefits and issues from my current designs. I Wish to discuss looking to explore ways to more deeply consider how I can create meaningful designs and interfaces that satisfy the demands of my creative practice.

  • To promote discussions around how considering and establishing musician-instrument relationships can be implemented into the design processes for DMI and AMI

  • From my insights I would like to further discuss what probes or questions could be considered when designers are looking to create instruments with disabled musicians or themselves. I would welcome feedback from the consortium on ideas and questions around how we might consider more deeply the musician-instrument relationship when designing for ourselves or others.


[1] Nijs, L., Lesaffre, M., & leman, marc. (2013). The musical instrument as a natural extension of the musician (pp. 467–484).

[2] Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (2002). Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Lucas, A., Harrison, J., Schroeder, F., & Ortiz, M. (2021). Cross-Pollinating Ecological Perspectives in ADMI Design and Evaluation. International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression.

[4] Morreale, F., De Angeli, A., & O'Modhrain, S. (2014, June). Musical Interface Design: An Experience-Oriented Framework. In NIME (pp. 467-472).

[5] Gaver, W., Dunne, A., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Design: Cultural Probes. Interactions, 6, 21–29.

[6] Tahıroğlu, K., Magnusson, T., Parkinson, A., Garrelfs, I., & Tanaka, A. (2020). Digital Musical Instruments as Probes: How computation changes the mode-of-being of musical instruments. Organised Sound, 25(1), 64–74.

[7] Frid, E., & Ilsar, A. (2021). Reimagining (Accessible) Digital Musical Instruments: A Survey on Electronic Music-Making Tools. International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME).

[8] Frid, E. (2019). Accessible Digital Musical Instruments—A Review of Musical Interfaces in Inclusive Music Practice. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction, 3(3), 57.

[9] Waters, S. (2021). The entanglements which make instruments musical: Rediscovering sociality. Journal of New Music Research, 50(2), 133–146.

[10] C. Chaf. Tactile audio feedback. In Proceedings of ICMC 1993, pages 76–79. ICMA, 1993.)

[11] J. Rovan and V. Hayward. Typology of tactile sounds and their synthesis in gesture-driven computer music. Trends in gesture control of music, 2000

[12] Marshall, M. T., & Wanderley, M. M. (2006). Vibrotactile feedback in digital musical instruments. Proceedings of the 2006 Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression, 226–229


To get an idea of where I currently see how the various aspects of my design can come together as they orientate themselves around the question, I have created a fundamental mind map. This is an early iteration of how I am thinking of the process, and will be evolving an updated throughout my research and studies.

Diagram of current design mindmap.

Fig. 1.0 Research and Design Mindmap

Supervisor’s recommendation letter


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