Cell Phone Music?
UM College of Engineering
iPhones are being used as musical instruments in a new course at the University of Michigan. The students — who design, build and play instruments on their smartphones — performed at a public concert on Dec. 9.
Building a Mobile Phone Ensemble, believed to be the first such course in the world, is taught by Georg Essl, a computer scientist and musician who has been driving the development of mobile phones as musical instruments.
Several years ago, Essl and his colleagues developed a way to use the microphone as a wind sensor—a tactic that enables popular iPhone apps such as the Ocarina. Ocarina essentially turns the phone into an ancient type of flute. Essl is an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the School of Music, Theatre and Dance.
“The mobile phone is a very nice platform for exploring new forms of musical performance,” Essl said. “We’re not tethered to the physics of traditional instruments. We can do interesting, weird, unusual things.
“This kind of technology is in its infancy, but it’s a hot and growing area to use iPhones for artistic expression.”
To build an instrument on an iPhone, you program the device to play back as sound information it receives from one if its multitude of sensors. The touch-screen, microphone, GPS, compass, wireless sensor and accelerometer can all be transformed so that when you run your finger across the display, blow air into the mic, tilt or shake the phone, for example, different sounds emanate.
The class demands creativity and technological savvy.
“In order to come up with a creative piece you have to engage with the technology, but in order to make technology interesting, you also have to engage with the musicality. These are really hard to separate. We’re trying to teach both,” Essl said.
The Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble concert is Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. in Britton Recital Hall in the Moore Building in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance. The Moore Building is at 1100 Baits Dr. on U-M’s North Campus in Ann Arbor.
The University of Michigan College of Engineering is ranked among the top engineering schools in the country. At more than $130 million annually, its research budget is one of largest of any public university. Michigan Engineering is home to 11 academic departments and a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.
The college plays a leading role in the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and hosts the world class Lurie Nanofabrication Facility. Michigan Engineering’s premier scholarship, international scale and multidisciplinary scope combine to create The Michigan Difference.