By Michael Pascoe

Mike is a research student at the University of Cardiff. In summer 2019, he undertook a BSA Media Fellowship with BBC Wales, sponsored by the Society for Applied Microbiology. Here, he reports from the  British Science Festival at University of Warwick.

 You can now learn how to play a new instrument, virtually (Credit: Burst)

Music is a fundamental part of our lives. We use it to celebrate, communicate and practice faith. While we’re all familiar with instruments such as the guitar or saxophone, some are known only to a handful of communities. With the cultural changes accompanying globalisation, the futures of rare instruments are threatened. Musicians, scientists and conservationists are faced with the challenge of ensuring the skills of playing these instruments are preserved for future generations.

The Global Sound Movement (GSM) has teamed up with researchers and game designers at the University of Central Lancashire to preserve rare instruments in the virtual world. By scanning them and making detailed recordings of the sounds they produce, they can be preserved for future generations to enjoy.  By recording the instrument in their home environment, the researchers can also capture the reverb and apply this to virtual spaces. Already, the GSM have successfully preserved virtual replicas of over 70 rare instruments, including the Chinese hani drum and Ugandan akadinda.

Upon donning a headset, users are immediately transported into a virtual space where they are presented with the instrument they have selected. Sensors monitor their movements and allow them to interact with the instrument with precision. Haptic feedback and velocity measurements give users a feel for the device and allow them to reproduce thousands of different sounds collected from live recordings.

After the demonstration, I was eager to test the technology myself and try my hand at playing the hani drum. Pictures of the drum didn’t do justice to its scale. After entering the virtual space, I circled its perimeter and even had to step up onto a platform to reach the drumskin. I was surprised to discover that hitting the sticks together and whacking the sides of the drum produced a variety of sounds. By no means an accomplished percussionist, I was still able to find my rhythm and transport myself into the groove. As I peered across the virtual landscape, I was greeted with a mountainous vista reminiscent of the view the researchers would have encountered whilst producing the replica. I was impressed with how the drum beats echoed back from the environment as if I was really playing among the mountains.


                                               The Chinese hani drum (Credit: Global Sound Movement)

The researchers noted that recording in remote locations posed some unique challenges to the project, including accessing electricity and overcoming language barriers. Phil Holmes, co-founder of GSM quipped: “We’ve had many recordings ruined by chickens!”

Paresh Parmar of the University of Central Lancashire said: “GSM are dedicated to preserving musical instruments of cultural significance and combining innovative new technologies, making them globally accessible. This enables musicians and non-musicians to access these wonderful instruments and sounds, whilst providing a resource for the original communities GSM worked with.”

As well as protecting cultural heritage, the profits generated by the technology have been fed back into participating communities to improve access to schools and music education.

The virtual environment facilitates real-time, one-on-one tutoring by masters located even in the most remote regions. The designers plan for multiple users to be able to interact and share the same instruments. For example, as many as 7 musicians can play the same akadinda simultaneously.

Broadening knowledge of these instruments also lets musicians in the UK experiment with new sounds and infuse their music with exotic beats. GSM claimed their recordings had already been sampled by DJs and music producers to light up dancefloors across Europe.

Listen to a track on Soundcloud from Global Sound Movement.

As well as reproducing instruments in a virtual environment, the team have developed an app, GSM Player, which is due to be released in the next few months across multiple platforms.

This virtual reality technology is truly one of a kind. It offers exciting new opportunities for connecting people across the globe to a range of instruments of cultural importance. Not only will people be able to enjoy experimenting with new sounds and rhythms, they will be able to learn and interact across cultures through music like never before. 

The British Science Festival takes place between 10-13 September, bringing over 100 events to Coventry and Warwickshire. Find out more here.