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It's a musical microcontroller on wheels. A row of light sensors on the bottom tell the thing when it's rolling over notes, and the speaker burps out the corresponding notes.

It can read a simplified musical notation, and can also be used to read from things like black magnets temporarily applied to a baking sheet for quick composition. These compositions could be scanned or photocopied to share.

The speed at which the Pen is rolled over notes governs tempo.

Progress & Updates

4/26/2011: Alan, Peter, Kristen

  • Kristen
    • Sees ways that this could be used to augment broader topics in an audio/musical way
      • for instance, children could write "soundtracks" to stories they're working on
        • it would be useful if songs could be recorded to a computer
          • this way, they could be incorporated into Scratch/Alice

4/11/2011: Alan, Peter, Darren

  • We have a sound generation algorithm! http://interface.khm.de/index.php/lab/experiments/arduino-dds-sinewave-generator/
  • Peter has finished the reader!
    • Next steps:
      • implementing the sine generator for Arduino
        • first step: one note at a time
          • if we have time, we can try to mix notes to generate chords
          • mixing notes involves averaging values from the sine table
        • might have to filter sound output with hardware
      • hooking the reader to the arduino
        • might have to use pull-up resistors between sensor and arduino to discretize sensors

4/5/2011: Peter, Alan, Shaw, Skippy

  • Updates
    • We're expecting parts any day
  • Ideas
    • We want to stay away from square waves - we want smooth wave tones; we'd settle for samples. Investigated Arduino "wave shield"
    • We could use a wheel + photo interrupter to keep time
  • Next steps
    • The interface will be digital input on 12 pins of the arduino
    • Alan will be at the space at 5pm on Thurs. 4/7 to start working with Arduino


  • What's the best way to sense light?
    • light sensitive resistors, transistors? Jcrews: the reader needs to have a spacing of sensors that is 1/2 the size of the notes, so that you can read notes from the spaces of the clefs as well as the lines. With 8mm squares, can we get <4mm sensors?
  • How big of a clef could it support? Jcrews:Basic music ed starts with FACE and EGBDF- that's 9 sensors.
  • How big would notes need to be?

Jcrews: I vote for the square pieces of rubberized magnet sheet, with thin black acrylic or black paper glued to the top. This quantizes the notes and avoids the problem of kids drawing notes that are too big or too small and allows younger kids to use it. Acrylic will make them bulkier and more tactile- good for manipulation. I'd say that 8mm sq is the lower end for kids to manipulate. The size of the overall reader is determined by how many notes there will be. If we have all 5 EGBDF lines the whole clef would be 4cm wide.

  • What microcontroller best suited?
    • it needs to be able to generate tones and collect inputs from the light sensors
  • Hall effect + magnets for sensing instead of photo?


Jcrews: First thing: read individual notes or (vastly preferable) multiple notes at a time, play them in realtime through the onboard speaker. A simple improvement w/ no additional programming is to make "chord strips" that are vertical strips of black&white that play specific chords. You'd only need 3 different ones to play the Ramones. :-)

  • Dial-a-key
  • Transposition
  • Recording
  • Computer interface

Skippy: thinking back to when I was teaching private music lessons, the additional functionality that I'd have been interested in beyond the basic:

  • Note lengths, either by having longer marks on the score, or having the scanner recognize the note shapes, or preferably both as a way to teach the idea that the note shapes tell you how long they are.
  • Base clef. (Or some of the other clefs, but that's really reaching.)
  • Some way to designate measures, preferably not locked into 4/4.
  • A built in metronome.
  • Added accents in the measure based on the time signature.
  • Dynamics -- possibly as a separate track where the amount of light/dark read by the sensor indicates relative volume?
  • Sharps and flats. Possibly double sharps and double flats.
  • A way to have the scanner play back a series of notes that the student can try to match by arranging the notes.
  • If we go with the player piano notation as seems likely, having the note durations marked on the bars would be useful for transitioning to reading music.
  • None playing bars marked with rests of the appropriate duration.

In education, features have to be tied with what student does, and students need to be doing something constructive, not just receiving information. See http://edorigami.wikispaces.com/Bloom%27s+Digital+Taxonomy

So, what will student be doing with the reader? Let's think about "game mechanics" (or rather, activity mechanics). One of the main mechanic for music ed is matching.

Maybe it can be a tiny karaoke, where the student sings or plays a piece of music into the device to match what has been (or will be) read?

Then there are mechanics for developing, e.g. transposing into another key.

Educational Application

This section is for discussion of the educational applications for this device.


The device could help in the pursuit of learning, including topics such as:



Here is a draft sample lesson plan: Recommended Grades: 2-3 Concept:



  • Patterns function in predictable ways.
  • Patterns can grow or repeat.
  • Understanding the structure of a pattern enables one to predict how it will grow or repeat.

Common Core Language Arts Standards:

  • RL2.1 Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
  • RL2.3 Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.
  • RL2.4 Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.
  • RL2.7 Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.
  • RL3.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
  • RL3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
  • RL3.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.
  • RL3.5 Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.
  • RL3.7 Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting).

Common Core Mathematics Practices:

  • 7 Look for and make use of structure
  • 8 Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

National Science Education Content Standard B:

  • Physical Science, Position and Motion of Objects, 4: Sound is produced by vibrating objects. The pitch of the sound can be varied by changing the rate of vibration. (127

Related books:

  • Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin (L. Moss)
  • Max Found Two Sticks (B. Pinkney)

Teaching Activities: 1. As part of a unit on pattern, read aloud Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin and Max Found Two Sticks. Students create a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting the books. Focus on the underlying patterns in each book. Classify each book as having a repeating or growing pattern structure. 2. Students work in pairs to create original musical patterns using the Player Piano. The class works to classify each composition according to the book it seems most like. Students use evidence from the text and from the compositions to support and defend their classifications. 3. Students choose 1 composition from the class and explain, in writing or verbally, how to change the composition so that it better resembles the structure underlying the other --Kristin B.