A musical instrument for people with a disability

Is it possible to create a musical instrument for people with multiple disabilities? Can it help them connect with their environment? Tjerk Dijkstra, Creative Technology lecturer & researcher at NHL Stenden researched this as part of his Masters in Health Innovation for EMBRACE Nederland.

What attracted you to this EMBRACE assignment?

After completing my studies in Communication and Multimedia Design, I worked as a programmer for a few years. But I didn’t get enough fulfilment out of just programming. I wanted to develop applications that really help people. That’s why this EMBRACE project appealed to me. I have no experience in healthcare or with this target group. So the research journey was sometimes also a journey of (personal) discovery for me.

How important is music for people with multiple disabilities?

People need contact with each other, connection and interaction. People with multiple disabilities also need this, but it’s often difficult due to their disabilities. Music can help with that and it is now used on a daily basis in healthcare. Listening to music can be very calming. A song while brushing your teeth can help you connect.

How can a musical instrument help people with multiple disabilities?

You might know this from your own experience: making music together gives a feeling of connection. It goes a step further than just listening to music with someone. Someone with multiple disabilities doesn’t currently have the chance to play a musical instrument on their own. The musical instruments we use are too complicated for that. So the idea came to design a musical instrument specially for people with a disability. EMBRACE asked me to do this for Jostein and Richard, two boys with severe disabilities.

Can you tell us a bit more about them?

Jostein (24) is enthusiastic and mobile. He has both mental and physical disabilities and is in a wheelchair. Jostein can communicate with facial expressions and by making sounds. Richard (34) is a somewhat older, quiet young man. His mental age is around that of a toddler (1-2 years). Richard is blind and wheelchair bound. Designing for this target group is a special challenge. I couldn’t, for example, ask them what they wanted or what music they liked.

 So how did you do that?

In order to get to know Jostein and Richard better I attended a number of sessions with music therapist Remi Adriaansz. I also spent a “day in their lives” at the Us Dream institution, where Richard and Jostein live. Based on my findings, I made a prototype that we experimented with. In this way we could always adapt the instrument to the personal needs of Jostein and Richard.

What were your most important discoveries?

I discovered that it is important for a musical instrument to feel nice to the touch. It must be agreeable or interesting to touch, because it is soft for example, or has a certain structure. It also worked well to use recognisable sounds, such as the voice of someone they know well.

How did Jostein and Richard react to the prototypes?

They responded by dancing, applauding, laughing or making noises. The prototypes helped make this connection. But to use the prototype, on their own, as a musical instrument, turned out to be a big step. It is very difficult for this particular group to learn new skills. It is possible, but it requires a lot of patience and you have to build up the test sessions very slowly.

But then corona came along.

Yes. Unfortunately we had to stop our sessions in March. The initial aim was to develop an actual musical instrument that could be used during a concert by ANDERS !, the musical theatre group for people with and without disabilities. But we never got that far.

What were the results of your research for people like Jostein and Richard?

Based on our findings, I have developed a toolkit for non-musicians. It contains a number of applications such as Keezy, Chordion, Keezy Drummer and JamToys. With these apps it is easy to start making music yourself. So a helper or family member can make music together with Jostein and Richard. The apps are free to download for the iPad.

What have you learned from this research?

You cannot think for other people. As researchers we think it would be really good for people with multiple disabilities to be able to play a musical instrument. But is this feasible? Aren’t we projecting our own needs onto them? In the end I came to the conclusion that interaction is more important than making music itself. The means should not surpass the goal. The goal is to make contact. Live music in particular is a powerful tool for this. I’ve really seen Jostein and Richard thrive on that.

Download the complete research report here:

Het ontwerpen voor mensen met meervoudige beperkingen voor ondersteuning bij het gebruik van muziek tot communicatie.pdf

Practical Expertise Centre EMBRACE Nederland
EMBRACE Nederland develops innovative music programmes and training courses aimed at giving vulnerable people a better life. We perform our music programmes with professional and amateur musicians, informal carers, care workers and students. Our professional musicians have followed the master module “Music and Healthcare” at the Prince Claus Conservatoire.