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The Piano Pen

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.


  • 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
  • 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.