Robots and Music

Toyota Meets SuzukiTwo stories about the use of robotics in music caught my eye this week. On Thursday, Toyota demonstrated a robot that can play the violin. From a technological standpoint, that’s pretty amazing. I can barely make noise with the thing, and my children have spent years learning to play what are still very elementary pieces. This robot plays with the technical proficiency of a late book one student, albeit with the feeling of, well, a robot. You can see it for yourself in this YouTube video, unless it’s blocked by a school web filter.

As Suzuki parents, we were of course very critical. “Its elbow is too high,” my wife reported. She said the same thing about a Boston Pops violinist last summer. I noted that it inserted an extra note at the end of the first phase of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance to avoid doing a circle bow, where the bow is lifted from the string and repositioned. Maybe it’s not late book one after all. But it was still pretty amazing for a machine.

Of course, that isn’t the point. No one is suggesting that robots can play music the way humans can. It’s much easier, anyway, to emulate the sound of an instrument with technology than it is to create the technology to physically play the instrument. But the fine motor skills required allow the researchers to develop the precision of the technology while working on an interesting challenge. Toyota is also working on several other robotic technologies that are potentially more useful, including a transporter that uses Segway-like technology to make it easier for handicapped people to move around.

Gibson Robot GuitarA more useful, but still gadgety use of robotics also appeared this week in the form of Gibson’s new self tuning guitar. You press a button, strum the guitar, and it tunes itself. It does this by sensing the pitch of each of the strings, and then adjusting the string’s tension accordingly to correct it. It can remember up to six different tunings, and can adjust itself to any of them. Want to switch from standard tuning to open G? Turn the dial, press the button, strum the guitar. That’s all there is to it. This video shows how it works.

Interestingly, the technology is made to look high tech, too. The motors that turn the pegs are needlessly noisy, and it uses flashing colored LEDs as high tech indicators for the guitar’s various functions. The price tag is not nearly as attractive as the technology. Gadgetell is reporting a US list price of $3399. I think I’ll still be tuning mine by hand for a while.